October 20, 2013

PIERCE: The Virtue in Suffering

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September of 1922 on the Aegean Sea: The diminutive bodies of two newborn twins, a boy and a girl, are dumped over the side of a Greek ship. Their mother sobs quietly on deck. Somewhere on the Anatolian mainland, her husband is being transported to a prison camp. She is weak from hunger, and bruised from the savage beating she received the night before from a Turkish soldier. For the second time in her life, she has been driven from home and had her entire family taken from her, and she is only 17 years old. Her name is Eva, and she is my great grandmother.

A full account of Eva’s story of surviving the Armenian Genocide was written by my uncle Bernard and published in the LA Times Magazine in 1992. At 10 years old, she and her family were forced from their village and marched many miles south into the Syrian desert. She watched her mother die outside of Aleppo, and her father and sister were separated from her, never to be seen again. Her situation was so dire that being sold into slavery, where she worked in an Arab home, can only be described as an act of divine providence. And yet, as she recalled these horrors for my uncle while sitting in her living room in Pasadena, near the end of her 84 years, she concluded, “I’ve had a good life. I wouldn’t change anything.”

I originally read her words from a distance of incomprehension that could have been measured in light-years. How could a life scarred by so much death and misery ever be considered good? And how could she have never wished things had been different: That her parents had lived to see her marry; that her husband had seen their first-born twins; and that these two innocent souls had been given a chance at life?

The existence of evil cannot be denied, and it has been a perennial struggle for humanity to try to make sense of this fact. Cornell’s own Menachem Rosensaft, Adjunct Professor of Law, recently wrestled with this issue in a sermon that was published by the Washington Post, which tells of his search for the presence of God in the senseless barbarism of the Holocaust. As Rosensaft explains, some ultra-Orthodox Jews have “blamed the Holocaust on Zionists who had refused to wait for the Messianic redemption,” while others take a more measured, but less conclusive stance, and reason “that the Holocaust had to have been part of a divine plan, even if human beings could not comprehend God’s reasons.” Yet, this latter point still leaves the question of how God could seemingly abandon his people to be slaughtered.

Rosensaft argues that God had not abandoned them, but was with those who suffered: “God was also within every Jewish parent who comforted a child on the way to a gas chamber, and within every Jew who told a story or a joke or sang a melody in a death camp barrack to alleviate another Jew’s agony.” God was with those who endured, who resisted and even those non-Jews who sheltered the persecuted.

While Rosensaft helped me see the presence of God in my great grandmother’s suffering, he did not help me understand how she was able to subsequently accept it with such serenity. Among the older generations of Armenian men in my family, it was common to despise the Turkish government, or even Turkish people themselves, for the events that transpired, leaving hundreds of thousands of Armenians dead and many more displaced. That hatred in my family was laid to rest with them and never passed on to me, and I see now that I have Eva to thank for that.

Perhaps evil exists because it is necessary; perhaps affliction presents an opportunity. The astounding humility and grace with which Eva accepted her life seems perfectly symmetrical to the magnitude of torture she faced. The events that emptied her expelled all vanity and purified her. It is because she was taken to such desperate lows that she was bestowed with such magnanimous depth. It is because she was separated from her husband that they were able to remain ever faithful after being reunited. It is because she was robbed of her first two children that she was able to love the five that followed so dearly. It is because things looked so grim early on that she was able to look back toward the end and conclude, justly, that it was good.