What’s Your Excuse?

pig706 (mar13)

There is a wonderful scene in the movie The Big Chill  in which Jeff Goldbum’s character defends rationalizations:

Don’t knock rationalization. Where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who’d get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations.

 When challenged that nothing is more important than sex, he replies, “Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?”

Rationalization is the psychological process in which we attempt to explain or justify our behavior or an attitude with logical reasons, even if these are not appropriate.  It is a defense mechanism employed whenever our actions or attitudes do not match our beliefs.  When we say believe in helping the poor but drive past the homeless person at the intersection asking for help, we need to protect our ego in order to avoid questioning our beliefs, our actions, or both.  And so, we tell ourselves, “someone else will give her something,” or “a lot of these ‘homeless’ people are really scam artists.”  We need a way to excuse our behavior.

Rationalizations, however, are more powerful, and therefore more dangerous, than excuses.  When we make excuses, we know we are making excuses.  We know we are lying and trying to avoid looking bad.  When we rationalize, on the hand, we manipulate the logic of the event to the point that we actually believe our own, obvious rationalization, which makes it easier (and more likely) that we will repeat the behavior.  This is particularly dangerous when the rationalization concerns actions which have caused pain and suffering to others.  Which brings us to King of Pain (with all due apologies to The Police), Job.

As Job endures his suffering, he repeatedly asks G-d to provide a reason for his suffering:

Will You not look away from me for a while, Let me be, till I swallow my spittle?

If I have sinned, what have I done to You, Watcher of men? Why make of me Your target, And a burden to myself?

Why do You not pardon my transgression And forgive my iniquity? For soon I shall lie down in the dust; When You seek me, I shall be gone. (8:19-21)

Why do You hide Your face, And treat me like an enemy?

Will You harass a driven leaf, Will You pursue dried-up straw,

That You decree for me bitter things And make me answer for the iniquities of my youth,

That You put my feet in the stocks And watch all my ways, Hemming in my footsteps? (14:24-27)

Job seems almost willing to endure his suffering if G-d would only give him a reason for it.

But what is G-d’s response?  What can be G-d’s response?  G-d cannot tell Job what sin Job has committed to deserve his suffering because Job has committed none.  Can G-d tell Job that his suffering was just the result of a challenge G-d accepted from HaSatan?  No.  There is no reason G-d can give to justify G-d’s afflicting Job with such suffering.  And so, G-d offers none.

So what are to make of G-d’s inability to provide Job a reason for his suffering?  Some commentaries see this lack of a reason as proof that there is no reason for suffering.  Suffering exists in the world, and sometimes people, through no fault of their own, suffer.  Some commentaries, on the other hand believe there is a reason we suffer, but as humans we are unable to understand G-d’s reasoning.  As evidence they point to G-d’s response to Job:

Who is this who darkens counsel, Speaking without knowledge?

Gird your loins like a man; I will ask and you will inform Me.

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding. (38:2-4)

We were not present at Creation.  We have not “penetrated to the sources of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep” (38:16).  Nor do we “know the laws of heaven or impose its authority on earth” (38:33).  We, like Job, are incapable of understanding G-d’s reasons even if G-d were to give them.

As for me, I tend to agree with those who believe G-d does not justify his behavior towards Job because there is no justification for it, and therein lies the lesson of the book of Job: If G-d does not justify G-d’s inflicting suffering upon Job, how can we rationalize the suffering we inflict upon each other?

7 responses to “What’s Your Excuse?

  1. What makes Job, yourself, or any of us special enough to deserve Justification from our Creator? You base your argument off of the presumption that Job deserved justification from G-d, but that is simply not the case. None of us do. So maybe when G-d said, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding,” He was giving justification: justification that Job did not need to know the reasoning to still stay faithful to G-d. The type of attitude that assumes G-d owes explanation or justification to one who is suffer is that of entitlement, and that gets us no where.

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    • I neither assumed nor claimed that Job deserves an answer from G-d. I simply pointed out that in the text G-d does not give a reason, and some commentators interpret this mean that there is no reason G-d can give: suffering just happens. G-d, in G-d’s answer out of the tempest, does accuse Job of being undeserving of a reason; G-d answers that Job is not capable of understanding the reason as none of us are capable of fully understanding G-d.
      If, however, we accept your argument that we do not deserve answers or reasons from G-d because we are less than and inferior to G-d, then this leads us to believing the others upon whom we inflict suffering are also undeserving of a reason from us as they are less than and inferior to us. This is the very rationalization that has led to the horrific suffering humanity has ever inflicted on itself (e.g. slavery, human trafficking, and every genocide ever perpetrated from antiquity through to today.

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  2. @Always_Questioning, No, it does not mean we are equal to G-d. It means that we must always strive to live in the image of G-d, and if G-d does not rationalize suffering inflicted on another, than neither should we. And, more importantly, when we no longer rationalize inflicting pain and suffering on others, we will be much less likely to inflict pain and suffering on others.

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    • I understand your conclusion and agree with it 100%, I’m just not sure I agree with how you got there. But, I digress. The big picture is what’s important. Thanks for the discussion!

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  3. Charles, this comment does not respond directly to your piece, but reading it touched me and I felt compelled to respond. As an atheist, I believe that humans act out of their own psychic needs. When I give to the homeless gentleman at the intersection, that gesture comes from a recognition that as humans, I am he and he is me, and that humans should love and support each other. When love and kindness guides human endeavor, we can rise above the fears that cause us to act selfishly and rationalize those actions. As I read through the postings on your blog, I find that My heart recognizes and agrees with many of your arguments; the primary difference is that I don’t see a G-d in these equations. And yet, for me, that difference seems irrelevant when weas humans come out on the same side, that of loving kindness, together.

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    • Thanks, Carolyn. And I totally agree with your conclusion. It does not matter the source of your morality. Although I must say, you sound much more like an existentialist than a atheist.

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