Orville died twice. He died first when he stopped breathing by the side of Interstate 70 in Indianapolis. He died officially three days later when, after removing the ventilator, he stopped breathing again.
The life supporting ventilator gave us time for the family to gather, to spend time together with Orv and with each other. When the time came to remove the ventilator, we first gathered in a circle around his bed for a family farewell. We each told stories, memories, and jokes. We laughed and wept. At one point as we all laughed, I felt simultaneously some of the deepest sorrow of my life, right alongside the same deep joy I had felt when our daughter got married. I will never forget that merger of grief and death with the joy of life and love.
The next day, driving the 550 miles home, I read to Barbara from Thich Nhat Hanh’s, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. Then I started writing these thoughts in the pages of the book:
Suffering is a fact of life. That is no reason to praise it. But because it is a fact of life, the willingness to face it and transform it is a central human virtue.
It is true that experiencing hunger makes us more appreciative of food. This might be a good reason to fast, but it is no reason to be grateful that children starve.
It is true that the death of a friend or father might make us appreciate them more, but this does not mean we are glad they died.
It is true that seeing the cruelty of the world makes us more grateful for kindness and love. But we do not, therefore, beat our children on Tuesdays, so that they will better enjoy our hugs the rest of the week.
Suffering is a fact of life. It is also a fact of life that we must be able and willing to endure some suffering, perhaps even great suffering, to achieve some greater goods. But part of the strength and maturity to face suffering is the refusal to pretend, religiously or otherwise, that all suffering is really good. To engage in such denial is to suggest that there is nothing really bad about child abuse, genocide, rape, or cancer—and hence no need to try to prevent or overcome them.
Instead, we must admit that much, even most, suffering is evil, and yet find the wisdom and strength to transform what suffering we can, so far as lies within our power, into peace, joy, and liberation, knowing that there are no guarantees.
The great challenge of theology and life is NOT to invent more clever ways to defend cherished beliefs or comfort ourselves by denying the reality of evil.
The great challenge of life is to redemptively transform suffering through love. As Daniel Day Williams wrote: “The hard fact, beyond all sentimentality, is that either we suffer in love, or outside of love,” and that makes all the difference in the world.