Liam, my 10-year-old friend, recently asked me if I was a philosopher.
“Yes,” I replied.
“What do philosophers do?”
“We think a lot about arguments,” I said.
That seemed to satisfy him, and it satisfied me. But philosophy is deeper than arguments. It also summons reflection on the grisly vicissitudes of life—what breaks the heart and binds it back together. Philosophy originally was a discipline for finding out not just how to think, but how to live.
I am that rare person who has found my vocation and avocation to be one. I don’t need to escape into hobbies to compensate for my day job. As Robert Frost put it in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
I do what I love, and it usually benefits others. Research and teaching and mentoring is where I flourish. The gifts given to me have been confirmed, as the late seminary professor Howard Hendricks would say, by finding people with the gift of benefiting from my teaching and writing.
For years I’ve pondered the topic of lament. This is partially due to my melancholic nature; I once read a book called Against Happiness—and enjoyed it. But my wife, Becky, is the main reason for my scrutiny of this topic. A gifted writer and editor, Becky had been bedeviled by a bevy of chronic illnesses, each year worse than the year before. None were fatal. All were miserable. They handed down not a death sentence, but a life sentence. It was ailment upon ailment without respite. We lamented as we sought relief.
The losses compounded and gathered into a pattern of a life absent of common enjoyments such as vacations, sufficient sleep, church attendance, days and even hours free from pain, serendipitous activities, and more. In their place came doctors’ visits, medical tests, prescriptions, expensive supplements, counseling, prayer sessions, experiments with unorthodox medical practitioners, and more. Our searches for respite did not do much good. I often thought of Freud’s statement that at its best, psychoanalysis could bring “an acceptable level of misery.” That was about all we had.
The strain upon our marriage was heavy, sometimes crushing. But we took our vows to each other and before God seriously, and we soldiered on. I could find the solid ground of meaning in my writing and teaching. But for Becky, the sicker she became, the more these islands of meaning sank beneath her.
The Lamp of Lament
Neither Becky nor I could dodge the disappointments or counteract the bitterness that crept into our souls. The Book of Ecclesiastes became my lamp of lament, although it offered little to my wife. But in those well-thumbed pages, I found a light to shine on the path of pain. For most of the summer of 1999, it was the only book of the Bible I could read, because it speaks truth to the brokenness of this world and my own.
The categories of Creation, Fall, and Redemption aptly capture the Christian worldview. As a Christian philosopher, I consider the rationality of the Christian worldview often and from many angles. Now, though, I was forced to see myself as living “under the sun”—a scorching sun that dries up hopes and turns forests into deserts. The author of Ecclesiastes was neither a nihilist nor a fatalist, but saw life as raw and unfair:
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)
Through these trials, Becky struggled to write and edit. As her health declined, each work became more difficult than the previous one. After writing two books, she labored for four years co-editing a major work on the theology of gender, contributing a long and carefully argued chapter. That was the last thing she wrote for publication. But page after page of my writing—books, reviews, essays, and academic papers—were marked by her corrections, questions, and deletions. We seldom argued over any of it. She made my work better, and we both knew it. Only God, Becky, and I know how much of her wisdom is woven into my work.
But she did not edit this essay.
The Beginning of Sorrows
Becky was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about 25 years ago. One of the many symptoms of this cruel disease is cognitive impairment, or “fibro-fog.” These symptoms became pronounced about 5 years ago. Paperwork took longer. Names would not come to mind. She stuttered.
One day Becky got lost on her way home from the hairdresser on a route she had driven for years. For several hours, I did not know where she was because she had forgotten to take her cell phone. She eventually called and stayed put until a friend and I arrived. I was slated to preach an apologetics message the next day at a local church. My anger at God and panic over my wife had, I thought, incapacitated and disqualified me. Upon calling the pastor to cancel, I found out that he thought otherwise. I delivered the message that Sunday—somehow. This was the beginning of sorrows.
This episode shifted my concern to something more serious than fibro-fog. We consulted a neurologist, who thought Becky’s depression was mimicking dementia. He treated her month after month throughout most of 2013. The depression and cognitive impairment did not budge.
The day before Valentine’s Day 2014, Becky could not leave her bed. She did not respond to my solicitations. A friend came over to help me take Becky to the emergency room. After a 12-hour stay, she was transferred to a behavioral health unit some 30 miles from our home. I left the hospital with my friend, drove home, greeted my upset dog, and then listened to Dark Side of the Moon. Somehow this was what I had to do. The iconic Pink Floyd album reminds me of Ecclesiastes—except without God. That was how I felt.
The next day I taught a class on C. S. Lewis at Denver Seminary. I opened the class by telling my students what had happened the long day before. (I have never been good at hiding my personal life from students.) Since I had been re-reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I spoke of trying to find meaning within suffering. If Frankl could resist the nihilism and despair of a concentration camp, then I could endure this. And, as a Christian, I knew that crucibles can shape us into the image of Christ. Frankl observed that those in the camps who lived for something beyond themselves never lost their will to live. He often quoted Nietzsche: “He who has a why can bear almost any how.” Religious faith could be this something, but so could other concerns. Frankl noted that many of the skeletal, chronically exhausted, and endlessly abused Jews persevered through their love for others, particularly for family members. They kept going for them.
Applying Frankl’s insight to myself, I told my students that I wanted to honor God and love my wife. But who made up my greater family? Besides Becky, I have almost no living relations. Because of her health, we have no children. I am an only child. My parents are dead. My relatives are distant geographically and not that close emotionally.
Every gaze in the class was on me, and no one seemed to be blinking. “I am going to find meaning in this for you—my students,” I told them. The weight of Becky’s illness already seemed overwhelming, so I resisted this role. Now I had no choice but to model virtuous Christian suffering. Later, one of my students told me that sitting in this class, he had “never felt more loved as a student.” Love remained as happiness fled and dread approached.
After Becky spent a few weeks in the hospital, a psychiatrist told me that she had primary progressive aphasia: a rare and cruel form of dementia that attacks the front of the brain before moving to the back. It is incurable, fatal, and horrible. The timetable was uncertain, but the outcome was not. She would lose her mind and know what was happening.
Becky has been home for over a year. We have someone living with us to help her. Once an avid reader, writer, and editor, Becky now wonders how to use her time. I often hear her drumming her fingers on the dining room table as I study in the basement. There are many unbidden adjustments for both of us to make. It seems unbearable, but we get up for another day. She is still Becky. She is still my wife. We have had 30 years of life together, and can draw from that deep well.
This narrative presents the beginning of our sorrows. Far more sorrows have since invaded our lives. But this should suffice. Life under the sun is just what the philosopher of Ecclesiastes said:
When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night—then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it. (8:16–17)
As a philosopher, I yearn to hold and commend rational beliefs about the great and perennial issues of life. These are well summarized by Immanuel Kant: “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” I am confident that Kant’s queries need not disarm us. They can be answered with intellectual satisfaction through Christian apologetics, theology, and the living of the Christian life. More specifically: 1. We can know God and his plan in the Bible. 2. We should love God and our neighbor. 3. The hope of the gospel does not disappoint us. The world will be remade in the Resurrection, so our labor is not in vain. We have reason to suffer without despair. I made that case in Christian Apologetics (2011). It’s the last book of mine that my wife will ever edit.
Yet when I try to find the meaning in my wife’s suffering, I come up dry and gasping. Even as the disease progresses, she will still be made in God’s image; she will still be in covenant with me; she will still be living out the vicissitudes of Providence. And yet, and yet: “Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” I know there is a larger meaning behind it all, but I cannot parse it out day by darkening day.
Ecclesiastes tells me to embrace my ignorance within the larger circle of knowledge—to mine meaning where I can and to look ahead with hope. Other Scripture, such the Psalms of Lament (i.e., 22, 88, and 90), recognize and ratify my anger, confusion, and fatigue, while placing them in the grand story of Scripture and before the presence of God. Still, I lament before God and man, trying to find a sure footing where I will not sink into self-pity and where I can smelt meaning out of misery—a footing from which I can offer up to God and to the world a hope worth hoping, because there is a God worth knowing.
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press).
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