Early last night, as I passed through Manhattan’s Columbus Circle subway station on the way home, there was a beggar sitting and hunched awry at the bottom of the steps to the A train. His legs were splayed around him, as if in a strange circle, his hands raised. His right hand held a cup. The left hand held a coin between his index finger and thumb. I remember his pants were filthy, dragged-across-the-ground filthy. There was a look of pain and helplessness about him. I remember his ragged, light brown beard, his oily, shaggy hair. He seemed to be in his early thirties. A bag of chips lay next to his knee. He was ten feet from a kiosk full of candy and drink and food.
And I passed him, but I couldn’t ignore him. And I looked around and I saw that his spine was cinched and folded in a way that can only come from the womb. And that there in his damaged circle at the base of a busy stairway, he could do nothing else, as pained as he was, but to ask for himself.
I went back to him, approaching him from behind and saw his spine more clearly, ridging through his untucked dirty shirt and I put a dollar bill in his plastic cup. He thanked me. I looked forward and nodded a quiet acknowledgement. I couldn’t bear to catch his eye. I hope he has a warm bed and a full belly, tonight.
This city is very rich and this city is very poor. This city is very healthy and this city is very sick. We can’t help everyone who asks for help. There are many people who we must help.
Suffering is here. Suffering is alive. And it whips its shattered back and tail as best it can, because it is in pain. The longer I live here, the troubling matters of theodicy sink deeper and deeper within me.
Sometimes, the easier way of handling theodicy is to dissolve or ignore any faith in God and to give kindness as materially as possible. Sometimes, it’s a dollar. Sometimes, it’s a piece of fruit. Sometimes, it’s a sandwich. Sometimes, God is a sandwich. A kind smile shared with that helps, too.
In John 9, Jesus circumnavigates the Pharisees’ trap regarding sin and a man born blind. “Who sinned?” ask the Pharisees. “The man or his parents?” “Neither,” says Jesus. “He was born blind so that God’s work may be revealed in him.” The older I get and the more suffering I see, the more this pericope annoys me. John has this person suffer his whole life to be the object of healing and the story to have a larger point. I don’t like this neat and tidy theodicy.
But for the dirty and broken man with the cinched spine in the subway, what good is this pericope to him? It is not surprising if he believes himself cursed by God and/or that he has cursed God, as well. What healing is there for him? Not physical. That’s for sure. What kind of theodicy is this?
Proof of suffering is easier to demonstrate than proof of God’s existence. Some may say that proof of suffering is the proof of God’s existence, or non-existence, or absence, or silence. Therefore, it is up to us to do something. Anything. QED.
If I had said, “God bless you.”, what good is that? If I said, “I’ll pray for you”, what good is that to him, at the foot of the stairs? I gave him a dollar. I didn’t know what else to do. There is suffering. And there is also the suffering that comes from helplessness. He was helpless. And I am almost helpless to help him. I could have done a thousand things. I did one thing – one thing that wasn’t enough. Nothing I could do would be enough. I tried to show kindness in a dollar. Something for him to eat or to help clothe him or find a place to stay. I didn’t know what else to do. And there was the old, barefoot man that got on the arriving subway car with us, saying like a mantra “God bless everyone. Please help. God bless everyone. Please help. God bless everyone. Please help…”
The suffering of New York City… it gets to you.