“I protest the suffering and deaths of my friends but I am also surprised by the beauty of their lives and the certainty of their resurrection”
I am once again being surrounded by sickness and death, the latest of which is my former boss, Fidel V. Ramos, the best president our country has had in the last 60 years.
This is why I am writing this column – to make sense of sickness and death and the suffering that comes with them.
I borrow its title from a book written in the late 19th Century by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. This sickness unto death is what Kierkegaard calls despair which happens when a person does not align himself or herself with God’s plan for that person.
The opposite of despair is faith. To not be in despair for this founder of modern existentialism is “to have reconciled the finite with the infinite, to exist in awareness of one’s own self and of love’s power”. Faith leads to hope which gives us the courage to love.
It is however difficult, almost impossible to talk about faith when people you love get sick and die. Aside from Ramos, I know of colleagues and classmates who died recently.
Three of those deaths – Jojo Nad, a good friend from our time in Washington DC and married to Manette, our fellow Jesuit Volunteer, Leah Vidal who was our classmate in college and close colleague in social development and academe, and Gilbert Son, our brother in the Neocatechumenal Way – have peen particularly sad and has pushed me to ask, not for the first time, what the meaning of suffering is.
To answer this, as suggested by our catechist, I read the catechesis on Job that Pope Francis recently proclaimed. I share some excerpts below:
“The parable of the Book of Job dramatically represents in an exemplary way what truly happens in life – that is – that trials that are too heavy fall on a person, on a family, on a people, trials that are disproportionate in relation to human lowliness and frailty. It often happens in life that “when it rains it pours,” as the saying goes. And some people are overcome by an accumulation of evil that truly seems excessive and unjust. It is like this for many people.”
What do we do in front of suffering, sickness, and death? We pray. And prayer can include protest. Pope Francis continues:
“God will listen to you. God is a Father. God is not afraid of our prayer of protest, no! . . . God does not shy away from the confrontation, but, from the beginning, allows Job to give vent to his protest, and God listens. At times, perhaps we need to learn this respect and tenderness from God.
“And God does not like that encyclopedia – let’s call it this – of explanations, of reflections that Job’s friends make. These are things that come off the tip of their tongues which are not right: it is that type of religiosity that explains everything, but the heart remains cold. God does not like this. He likes Job’s protest and silence more.”
Recently, I received news about my health that made me protest like Job. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and, although this is a form of cancer that can be treated, it was still a shock.
I certainly do not want to die.
I always thought I would have another good 20 years. I feel like I am now climbing another peak professionally as a teacher and human rights and climate justice lawyer, and personally, including in my relationships with my family and old and new friends, and more recently the team we are putting together for the Mindanao dream project on climate justice and Lumad schools.
I am also excited for the work on disinformation I am helping lead.
At the same time, there is something that attracts me to a life knowing when you will die.
I could prepare for that moment. I could plan my funeral wake. I could say goodbye properly. I could wind up my affairs systematically.
But don’t make me suffer too much is what I would like to ask the Lord.
In my philosophy classes, I used to teach death as the Jesuit Roger Troisfontaines conceived of it — that we are beings-towards-death and every day brings us nearer to that event which completes us.
My favorite philosophical concept is still French philosopher and dramatist Gabriel Marcel’s disponibilite — that we are what we have (to) make/made available ourselves to; we are the sum of our yesses, our missions, the calls to love and build that we heard and responded to.
I look at the life of FVR, Jojo, Leah, and Gilbert and definitely they live such lives.
I protest the suffering and deaths of my friends but I am also surprised by the beauty of their lives and the certainty of their resurrection.
I protest at what is happening to me.
But I am also grateful for this cancer. I always thought that eventually some big health crisis would hit me, given the excesses of my lifestyle.
It was just a matter of time, although I did plan to address the danger.
I always thought I would have a stroke or a heart attack.
Instead, God gave me this sickness, that is not my fault that allows me to recalibrate my life and do better.
In other words, I have been given a new opportunity to live better, among others to see which and who are the necessities in my world.
Things are so clear now. I can see God’s plan. I need to be faithful to that.