Bad Things and Good People
What are we to make of what has befallen innocent victims of the September 11 massacre and like inhuman atrocities committed upon the blameless since, in the name of religion? Job, a righteous and upright man, was obsessed with the tragedy that befell him. Rabbi Aaron Kushner, centuries later, still wrestles with the same dilemma in his book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In the futile pursuit of such an answer, with my meager human insight, I have often found myself slipping into cynicism, the jaded and fatalistic view that, despite our best efforts, the rain falls upon the just and the unjust, and there is no point in attempting to change it. “Stuff happens,” to paraphrase a popular expression. Hemingway drew from the writer of Ecclesiastes, who said:
“The sun rises and the sun goes down; back it returns to its place and rises there again…What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun…”
Then I remember my mother and my friend. Over fifteen years ago now, sitting hour upon hour at my mother’s bedside, where she was dying a grotesque death from cancer, I went from agony to anger and back again, obsessed with why she deserved it. It was my friend who, quite unintentionally, allowed me to cope with my grief.
My friend is an extraordinary person. If you have not spent time with him, seek him out in my community. He was born in a foreign country and came to this country to study. He wound up at Snead Junior College, where he met and fell in love with a girl who grew up in my North Alabama hometown. It was an unusual combination: he of Muslim upbringing – she of the Methodist faith, with three brothers who became Methodist ministers. They married and returned to Iran, his native country. He returned to his country with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and an MBA. They amassed quite a comfortable fortune in that country, and two sons were born of the marriage. They had an income greater than any I ever hope to earn, a very nice house, and luxury cars. There was a revolution afoot, and at midnight, under cover of darkness, they left their home, their consulting engineering and import-export business, their luxury cars, and his family, and they caught the last plane out and came to this country. That’s when I first met him.
He came to my office with a smile on his face, and he was selling pumpkins. He did not speak to me of his engineering degree or his MBA, but with a smile on his face he tried to convince me that his pumpkins were the best in town. I bought several.
Soon he had enough funds and credit to start a small gas station near the square. He had outrageously high prices, but I traded with him, I think, because of his smile. Once, he put regular gasoline in my diesel engine car. With one of his infectious smiles and a dumb-slap to his head, he said he would make it good. He did.
News came that his youngest brother, at the age of seventeen, was arrested by the new regime in his country and imprisoned. The brother was tortured, kept in prison ten years, and then executed. My friend never got to say goodbye. We talked about it, and still he had his smile.
My friend’s oldest son was in his freshman year of high school with my son. My son, never given to open displays of emotion, came home one day from school with tears in his eyes. He related to me how my friend’s son was being ostracized by some of the other kids in school and even physically abused, because he was part Iranian and Iran was holding American hostages. My son, with tears in his eyes, asked me a question I could not answer: “Dad, why are these things happening to him? He hasn’t done anything to deserve them.” I had no answer for my son, and I had none for my friend’s son, who was in my Sunday school class.
Then a great day arrived for my friend. After studying American history and cramming for the exam, he was given the oath of allegiance as an American citizen, with dozens of others, in a federal court. I remember the night we celebrated with him at Doctor Ron Dykes’ home. There were little American flags beside every plate, and there was my friend, with his ever-present smile.
I am told by one of the ladies who works in the revenue commissioner’s office that some time ago, when my friend came to pay his taxes, they told him his taxes had been raised. My friend smiled, and he said to them: “It is no matter. I am just happy to be here.”
Shortly after my mother’s death, my friend received news that his mother, his father, his sister, and his sister’s five and three year old children were killed in a plane crash in Iran, burned to death. His mother, in prayers it seems, had promised God that if he would spare one of her sons from a serious illness and surgery, she would go on a pilgrimage to a holy place in the Muslim faith. It was on that pilgrimage that their plane was accidentally struck by a military plane, and all perished in flames. Again, my friend never got to say goodbye.
I went to my friend to console him. He had his ever-present smile. We talked for almost two hours, and in probing how he was able to deal with this unimaginable tragedy, I was privately trying to deal with my own mother’s death. I remember only vestiges of that two hours. I remember asking him if he was angry with God, and I remember his response: “I don’t think God had anything to do with it. I have a brother who is a philosopher. He says that life is a roadway from one eternity to another, and that we encounter many miseries along the way.” And then he added: “I just hope that when I get through one misery, it is just a little longer till the next one.” I asked him if he was still of the Muslim faith. He did not know how to answer me. “I believe in the good things in all religions,” he said to me. I asked him if his belief in God had been shaken. He assured me that it had not. “You know,” he said, “if there is not a God, it scares the hell out of me.”
And so my friend, who is not a saint and who does not purport to be, and whose conversation is sprinkled with epithets from time to time, and whose prices were outrageous, and who is not sure if he is a Muslim or a Christian or none of the above, has allowed me to learn something. He has allowed me to learn that it is not the tragedy in my life I should focus on in my time here on earth – it is, rather, how I respond to them. And that is the thought that keeps me from the precipice of cynicism in the face of atrocity.
My friend, Hooshang, better known to us in my hometown as “Hank,” and who is not quite sure there is any important difference to him whether he is Muslim or Christian, grasps the good things and the good people in both faiths. He responds, still, with a smile and a handshake, after all the tragedies that have befallen him. And his smile has given me a light to go by in my grief and in my anger.
Maybe “it is no matter.” Maybe life is a roadway “from one eternity to the next,” and filled with miseries we hope there are long distances in between. I came to console my friend for the bad things that had happened to him, and I came away uplifted. And you know, I have begun to smile again. Tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that the sun will also rise. But it is no matter; I am just happy to be here.
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