Sans Everything

Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. (Job 1:21)

When my mother could no longer live on her own, we moved her from her spacious home in Sedona, Arizona to a tiny two-room apartment in an assisted living facility near where I live in Connecticut.  My sisters went through her house before it was put on the market, saving only important personal papers and a few items of sentimental value.  The rest was sold or donated to charity.  My mother came East with little more than her clothes, a handful of family photographs and some artwork we put up on the walls of her new apartment to make it feel more like home.  She was diagnosed with vascular dementia shortly thereafter, and within a few years she had to go into a nursing home.  What little she was able to keep with her was stored in an armoire in the room she shared with two others.  The furniture we had bought for her apartment was given to family members.  In the end, there was little tangibly remaining of her 88 years on this planet; even her memory had faded into oblivion.  After she died, my sister took my mother’s ashes back to Sedona and scattered them in the Coconino National Forest.  The few belongings I retrieved from the armoire went into my basement, where they still sit because I have not had the heart to dispose of them.

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away…  These words, which are usually heard at funerals, come from the Book of Job, hardly the most comforting of Scriptures.  For all his suffering, Job does not suffer the ravages of age; he is ravaged by God – or, to be precise, he is ravaged by Satan with God looking the other way.  To satisfy a wager between the two as to whether the “blameless and upright” Job will remain steadfast in the face of adversity, Satan strips him of every worldly possession: his oxen, his asses, his sheep, his servants, his sons and his daughters – everything except his wife, who advises him to curse God and die.   This suggestion Job perversely refuses to take.   “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away” he says in response, “blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Job is left sitting in an ash heap scraping the sores that now cover his body from head to foot.

The parallels between Job’s plight and the modern-day Holocaust are not lost on many who make it their business to explain the ways of God to humankind.  The Jews in Europe were systematically stripped of their worldly possessions and then shipped to concentration camps, where they endured unspeakable suffering.  Millions were exterminated, their ashes billowing from the smokestacks of crematoria.  Like Job, the survivors pleaded for some explanation of their sufferings but were met with stony silence from on high.   

In a culture that strives to keep death and destruction at arm’s length, we are naturally more attuned to the Lord who giveth than the Lord who taketh away.  However, Hindus make no bones about this dual function.  For them, the god of creation and the god of destruction are one and the same.  We might well ask how, in a religion with hundreds of gods, the Hindus could conceive of a single deity embodying such seemingly antithetical qualities.  Perhaps it is nothing more than a matter of simple observation.  

No matter how resolutely we stick to the sunlit pathways of life, we cannot indefinitely ignore the lengthening shadows.  I have reached the age when I idly scan the obituary pages looking for my contempraries.   Whatever the future holds for me, I do not imagine I will be stronger, richer, healthier, better looking or more accomplished than I am now.  I need only try to keep up with my young granddaughter to be reminded that I am long past being young myself.  Some mornings I wake up feeling like the Tin Woodman after he has been left out in the rain.  My late father suffered his first stroke when he was younger than I am now; the second one, 15 years later, killed him.  I cannot suffer a lapse in memory without being reminded of my mother’s fate.  I wonder whether I too will end in “second childishness and mere oblivion,” as Shakespeare put it, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

We are as dispossessed by age as Job was in his fateful encounter with God and Satan, and like him we are left staring into the abyss.  And yet a profound transformation occurs in Job at this moment – not defeat but a curious kind of transcendence in which he accepts that he has lost everything and embraces his essential nothingness.  The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.  "Therefore I will be quiet," he concludes after he is denied even the courtesy of an explanation, "comforted that I am dust."

William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job

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