Tragedy, Sorrow, and Serenity: A Response to Rachael Givens

Rachael Givens observes that Mormon theology is full of tragedy, but Mormons themselves don’t seem to be very good at dealing with it. She draws on some of the most distinctive ideas in Mormonism to offer recommendations on how to accept and process tragedy better. I enjoyed her post a lot and offer some thoughts of my own. In part I’ll press on some issues I’m not sure she really resolved, but I also want to expand on what I see in her closing paragraph.

Rachael describes tragedy as a situation in which something precious must be lost or given up in the process of securing something else precious, where there is an “irreconcilable conflict between Good and Good,” because both goods cannot be realized. I think she is right that tragedy in this sense is an essential element of Mormon cosmology, and that this role for tragedy is part of what makes Mormonism a radical departure from traditional Christianity.

Perhaps the most important tragedy is that in order to develop spiritually and fully partake of the glory of our Father in Heaven, we have to enter a realm of spiritual uncertainty, ignorance and weakness, and exercise moral agency in a context where grave sin is possible. As a result, many of us will depart from the path of salvation, perhaps permanently. This is a deeply non-traditional view in a few ways, and perhaps what is most non-traditional about it is its incorporation of tragedy–indeed, multiple dimensions of tragedy.

First, the idea that there is something good that Adam and Eve achieve through the Fall, and that we achieve in following them, is an uneasy idea in conventional Christianity. That we must give up innocence and the presence of God in order to achieve spiritual progress is itself a tragic notion. Second, the idea that to allow spiritual progress and the choice of exaltation, God must also open up the possibility of our choosing eternal damnation, and that some will almost certainly choose it, is tragic. Third, some traditional accounts, like that of Augustine, suggest that God’s plan is equally realized whether we are saved or damned, because when we are saved it reflects his mercy (and our purification from sin in some sense), and when we are damned it reflects his justice (and our guilt). However, in the Mormon view, the punishment of the wicked is something that is not in any way pleasing to God. He weeps for those whom Satan claims. Hence God’s justice is also tragic. God’s plan is shot through with tragedy in (at least) these three key ways.

I agree with Rachael about Mormons’ tendency (often) to avoid and deny tragedy, rather than face and deal with it. It is understandable that we do this, given human nature, the tendency of historical Christianity (which is always there as a cultural influence) to avoid tragedy, and the presence of other teachings in Mormonism that facilitate the avoidance of tragedy, depending on how they are interpreted. It is paradoxical, though, given how thoroughly tragic our cosmology is, and ultimately I think we are unfaithful to our prophetic inheritance if we do not take to heart the tragic dimensions of our theology. Thus far I fully agree with Rachael, though I have expanded on her themes in some ways of my own.

Rachael loses me, though, when she offers some doctrinal solutions to help us “handle tragedy without compromising Mormonism’s profound commitment to joy.” I think there is something promising here, but I am not sure how it is supposed to work, and I worry that her solutions might involve eliminating tragedy rather than accepting and dealing with it. Like some others who comment on her thread, I’d love to see her clarify what she has in mind and am looking forward to her promised sequel. For now, I’ll explain where my questions lie.

First Rachael points to the idea that our experiences, including suffering, will turn to our good. Certainly this is a key part of the Mormon picture, and part of why we must, tragically, spend time in mortality, away from God. But if our suffering all turns to our good, do we risk nullifying the suffering? I especially worry that we are thinking tragedy will ultimately be done away, like death will be, and if that is what we think, it seems we are ultimately not accepting it. I am particularly nervous about the way LDS sometimes seem to brush off the idea that there was something wrong with Adam’s and Eve’s choice to eat the forbidden fruit, which made experience of good and evil possible, and instead simply describe it as the right choice. Even as Nephi is explaining why it was necessary, he still calls it a transgression. If we make their choice too wholly and simply good, I think we are missing something and again, talking ourselves out of tragedy.

Next, Rachael points to the hope for universal salvation. This is certainly a reassuring idea. It makes the tragedy of leaving the presence of God and enduring ignorance and sin more acceptable. Yet isn’t it a bit too reassuring? If we maintain universal salvation, aren’t we still minimizing the possibility of another, very important tragedy? To me, there is a big difference between saying that God wants and hopes for and seeks salvation for all, and saying that he will succeed. I suppose there is an element of tragedy left so long as some people take a long time, and both suffer and inflict a lot of pain along the way before coming around to accept salvation. Still, the depth of the tragedy is drastically reduced. It becomes ephemeral, from an eternal standpoint, and so I worry that we are talking ourselves out of tragedy.

Also, I just wonder if we aren’t kidding ourselves to paint the rosy picture of universal salvation. In scripture I see God expressing the hope for all to be saved, a hope that applies to each of us, but not in any clear way the teaching that all actually will be saved. Moreover, the hope, for me, is part of the tragedy, so I affirm the hope . . . but I am not sure that my hope will be fulfilled, and if I were, I’m not sure it would still be hope! A lot of the urgency of the hope would seem to dissipate, and along with it, the sense of tragedy.

Finally, Rachael refers to the response of weeping in love, exemplified by Mormon and Enoch, and by God. I’m not sure how she means this to resolve the tension between tragedy and joy exactly, either. I am hoping she will write more. To me, though, this is the most important and, if I understand it, insightful part of her post.

It seems to me that one of the conclusions we must draw from a tragic conception of the universe is that sorrow is inevitable, and hence that we should not try to avoid it. This is not to say that we should not avoid it in any way. There are many things that lead to unnecessary sorrow, and we should avoid these as far as we can. Also, some things are not as sorrowful as we may think, when understood in eternal perspective, and we should avail ourselves of the comfort of that perspective where appropriate. Still, we should not expect or try to avoid sorrow entirely, and in fact, we should expect an enormous amount of sorrow if we follow in God’s footsteps. Perhaps we should even expect infinite sorrow, accompanying, though not surpassing the infinite joy of exaltation and reunion with God.

The trick is to accept that sorrow for some things is good and right, and part of the divine life. If loss is inevitable, it is only right that we should feel sorrow. Sorrow does not indicate a lack of faith in God’s plan, or a failure to appreciate his perspective. In fact, God himself feels enormous sorrow over the suffering of his children, especially their suffering due to sin, including their own sins. Proper sorrow, I suggest, is not opposed to joy, but is an element of it.

Part of a faithful response to God’s plan, then, is to accept the sorrow that comes from appreciating and seeing its tragic dimensions. Rather than fighting it, as Enoch initially seems to do, we should recognize that certain kinds of sorrow are part of holiness, and that in allowing this sorrow to wash over and through us, by weeping with God, we become more pure and grow closer to—not bliss, perhaps, but—the serenity and joy of heaven.

43 comments for “Tragedy, Sorrow, and Serenity: A Response to Rachael Givens

  1. May 21, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    I’m surprised that she didn’t mention the tragedy that the doctrine of polygamy entails. The Mormon God is a God of sacrifice. Joseph Smith said all must be tried “as Abraham.” The profound contradictions embodied in the law of obedience and sacrifice have done more to darken and deepen the pathos of Mormonism than anything else I can think of.

  2. May 21, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Ben, thanks.

    For me, it is the concept of living in a tragic world and we must try to find joy in spite of that tragedy. That is, after all, the concept of Christ and Christianity, isn’t it? The world is fallen, and only through Christ can we be redeemed.

    That there is the ancient concept of God bringing order out of chaos, whether at Creation, in the Garden/Fall/Atonement, or in final Millennial event where the world will be terrestrialized/celestialized, is very apparent in LDS theology. That is what Lehi taught about in 2 Nephi 2 on opposition, the two trees, etc.

    For me, LDS theology is about tragedy being turned into triumph. This is especially true when we realize that LDS believe in a near universal salvation (while many Christians believe in a limited atonement).

  3. mapman
    May 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    I wonder if this is what Lehi was trying to say in 2 Nephi 2 when he talks about opposition in all things, how misery is necessary for joy to exist. Accepting that there is tragedy will allow us to really understand joy as well.

  4. May 21, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    The tragic vision of Mormonism. Amen and amen. Shout it from the rooftops.

    Ben H., I endorse every syllable.

  5. May 21, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Universal salvation can be read tragically, by the way. It can be read as the total collapse of the project of letting us have meaningful choices from which serious consequences depend.

    In other words, freedom (or real choice with real consequences) and salvation (or good outcomes) are in real conflict, and any proposal to reconcile them turns out to be just a matter of trading away some of one for some of the other, or of shoving the tragedy off onto some third person (Christ).

    From this perspective, its hard to tell whether Satan’s premortal error was that he privileged salvation over choice completely–the normal LDS perspective–or that he made the utopian’s error of denying that irreconciliables cannot be reconciled.

  6. Howard
    May 21, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    Mormons revere suffering and while it is true adversity creates the opportunity and motivation for growth even spiritual growth, Buddhists understand that suffering is immature and unnecessary. We are born pain adverse, it’s a safety feature but unfortunately it psychologically paves the way to non-physical suffering as well until we come to realize that this kind of suffering is completely optional. Non-physical suffering is caused by clinging to the way we want things to be instead of accepting them as they are. It’s as simple as that, as soon as we accept the way things are the suffering stops! Try it, it works!

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    May 21, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    I sam not quite following what you mean by “universal salvation”. Do you mean the D&C 76 picture of those in hell suffering for their own sins, instead of receiving benefit from the Atonement of Christ, and then being resurrected in the Telestial Kingdom? They receive the benefit of the Atonement in being resurrected eventually.

    The core tragedy of the Gospel is the voluntary suffering of God himself on behalf of his creation, and that includes our promise at baptism to “mourn with those who mourn.” This is not just a pledge of mutual support that is less applicable now as health and longevity improve; rather, it is a promise to join with those who mourn over the suffering of the Son of God on behalf of mankind (see Enoch’s words at Moses 7:56). It is what we are doing each Sabbath day as we partake of the Sacrament and contemplate the suffering of Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross.

  8. Howard
    May 21, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Tragedy is a form of drama based on human suffering. Drama is created from psychological games, in fact drama is psychological games – Google Karpman Drama Triangle for a excellent one page explanation. So tragedy is vicarious cathartic entertainment. We love it, we hate it, we hate to love it and we love to hate it. These are entertaining educational metaphors that hold our attention while teaching us about human nature. God doesn’t suffer, long ago he accepted things as they are, he has transcended suffering.

  9. Ben H
    May 21, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    Howard, I think you have articulated quite sharply a fundamental difference between Buddhism and Christianity, and on this issue I side with Christianity. Christianity teaches that there are some things we should not accept, that we should fight against evil and strive to establish the good. As it happens, I do not believe that we can or should accept everything as it is, so long as we live, and it is telling that Buddhism calls us to leave life and not return, whereas Christianity teaches that we will rise from the dead, to live eternally, and that this is glorious. Certainly we can reduce our reactions and judgments through some of the techniques Buddhism recommends, but to do this with all of our judgments is to turn away from the challenges life calls us to. Buddhism regards life as a wrong turn because it inevitably involves suffering; Christianity regards life, with its suffering, as a part of God’s plan. At least, the version of Christianity I subscribe to does. Some versions of Christianity might suggest something else, as though we should have stayed innocently and blissfully in the Garden of Eden forever, and as if heaven is a state of bliss we can return to, where the fate of the wicked will not bother us. However, LDS scripture clearly teaches otherwise.

    RTS (#7), some have suggested something more radical, including those in a telestial state (perhaps even in outer darkness) eventually advancing to higher kingdoms. Presumably any degree of separation from God that endures would represent a continuing tragedy.

    Interesting twist on universal salvation, Adam! (#5)

    Rameumptom (#2), I agree that to a great extent the tragedy (in the more common-sensical sense) will be turned to triumph, but the point of my post is to argue that some loss will remain, and that we should not fight against accepting this, but should be willing to grieve over it.

  10. Howard
    May 21, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    Ben H,
    Good comments but we don’t have to accept the conclusions of Buddha to realize that he was right about the causes of suffering! There is no reason to conflate the two or feel that we must choose a package deal between Buddhism in it’s entirety or Christianity in it’s entirety. We can put this single Buddhist lesson of optional suffering to work in our Christian lives and benefit greatly from it, I certainly do. When you say you side with Christianity are you saying you prefer to suffer unnecessarily?

  11. May 21, 2012 at 11:06 pm

    He’s rejecting your notion that all suffering is intrinsically optional or unnecessary.

  12. Howard
    May 21, 2012 at 11:14 pm

    Adam G,
    Non-physical suffering is not all suffering. Which non-physical suffering is not optional? Since it is optional we can choose when and where to apply this concept so I don’t see how it interferes with Christianity it just reduces pain.

  13. May 22, 2012 at 6:51 am

    Howard, I don’t understand how non-physical suffering is optional. You say, “try it, it works.” I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work, at least for me. I think transcending non-physical suffering would entail a kind of mental discipline and self-control that few people have achieved, and that few even have the potential to achieve.

    And even then, how do perfected people empathize when they have reached a state of enlightenment? How come “Jesus wept?” Is it possible to “mourn with those that mourn” and still be enlightened?

  14. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 8:27 am

    It requires a little practice but it is not beyond the ability of average mortals and it sure beats the pain of suffering. The mental discipline required is; letting go (more than momentarily). When we truly let go of wanting things to be different than they are suffering stops. Is this what you did? You actually let go of wanting and the pain continued? I doubt it. You may have tired to let go or you may have let go momentarily but went back to wanting things to be different and the suffering returned.

    Enlightened people were not created in an enlightened state they grew to achieve it so they have plenty of unenlightened suffering experience to draw from to empathize with others. Weeping is not necessary suffering, I have wept because I was empathizing. One of the problems with common mortal empathizing is that it is not pure, if we take an enlightened introspective look at it we often find we are actually feeling our own referred pain rather that the other person’s pain or we are conflating our pain with theirs. A truly enlightened person is not doing this, they are not mixing their pain with their empathy for others. While it is comforting we do ourselves a disservice by assigning common mortal feelings to deity because by doing so we deny the growth gap we must close to become like him. Is God selfish, possessive, jealous, etc? No, of course not.

  15. May 22, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Non-physical suffering is not optional. You can only let go of it if you let go of love.

    But in any case this is a threadjack.

  16. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Adam G,
    You’re conflating love with suffering.

  17. Bob
    May 22, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I have heard too many “Love Hurts” songs to disagree with Adam.

  18. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 11:16 am

    You’re both love with suffering.

  19. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 11:16 am


  20. May 22, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    What an interesting post, Ben. Love the post and the comments.

    Howard, if I’m reading Bob and Adam G. correctly, they are saying that love IS inherently conflated with suffering.

    My 11-year-old son spent most of April in the hospital, two weeks in intensive care, two major surgeries. He was seriously ill and was in a great deal of pain much of the time. There was no physical suffering on my part, but the only way I could have removed MY non-physical suffering was to stop loving my son. When he was in danger or pain, it was torture.


    P.S. He’s home and just had his final post-op appointment with the surgeon last week. After this week of restricted activities, he’s all good. He’s even gained back half of the the pounds he lost. :) (For an 81-pound kid, that’s a lot of progress.) :)

  21. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I agree watching those we love physically suffer is very difficult, more difficult than what I have been talking about here. In these cases we are experiencing empathy for someone in physical pain which I see more as a subset of physical suffering than non-physical suffering with it’s psychological origin. This may be why Christ had to be crucified, extreme physical suffering speaks to a common denominator in all but the most unfeeling among us. On the other hand what went on in Gethsemane while expressed physically by Christ was not physical in origin and requires a much more nuanced understanding to appreciate. So, there is a significant difference in magnitude. Still putting the suffering is optional concept to work can reduce your suffering even while watching your child suffer and these techniques can also be taught to and employed by your child and reenforced by your example to help reduce even their physical suffering. Imagine touching and being locked in a loving connected gaze with your child without the interference that extreme suffering brings.

  22. MC
    May 22, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    “In these cases we are experiencing empathy for someone in physical pain which I see more as a subset of physical suffering than non-physical suffering with it’s psychological origin.”

    So watching your own brother or sister or child turn away from the Lord, is that sort of suffering optional? What about seeing your parents get divorced?

    “Still putting the suffering is optional concept to work can reduce your suffering even while watching your child suffer and these techniques can also be taught to and employed by your child and reenforced by your example to help reduce even their physical suffering.”

    This sounds a little bit more like a Tony Robbins seminar than a gospel concept.

  23. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    So watching your own brother or sister or child turn away from the Lord, is that sort of suffering optional? What about seeing your parents get divorced? Yes, it’s optional but feel free to suffer through it if you want to.

    Sorry I don’t know Tony Robbins but I’ve already credited the basic idea to Buddhism.

  24. MC
    May 22, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    “Yes, it’s optional but feel free to suffer through it if you want to.”

    Howard, you do see why your bright and sunny philosophy is getting some pushback, right? Let’s say my parents announced tomorrow that they are getting divorced. If you tell me that my suffering is “optional,” you are basically blaming me for my suffering due to the disintegration of my family. I find that to be quite ridiculous. If I cheated on my wife, would her suffering be “optional”? “Oh, you know dear, it’s just water off a duck’s back. Don’t let it get to you.” Not only is your position totally disconnected from human experience, it strikes me as inhumane.

  25. YvonneS
    May 22, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    All of the above words have provoked much thought. I have concluded that non physical suffering is mental anguish. There is no mental anguish without physical suffering accompanying it. As long as we live in physical bodies our emotional and mental suffering will bring lethargy, physical pains in the limbs and body. So it is my opinion that all suffering is physical as well as spiritual.

    The observation I found most profound and to the point in the post is this, “Perhaps we should even expect infinite sorrow, accompanying, though not surpassing the infinite joy of exaltation and reunion with God.” For me this is the key to dealing with the kind of tragedy described above. Joy and sorrow must exist together or they do not exist at all. We can expect that our greatest joys will be followed by suffering. Suffering will be followed by joy. Thus we have hope for the future.

  26. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    MC wrote: Let’s say my parents announced tomorrow that they are getting divorced. Okay, please explain how your suffering helps your parent’s situation or your own or anyone? …it’s just water off a duck’s back. No, it’s not just water off a duck’s back, accepting doesn’t mean not caring, it means you no longer lust or pine to the point of pain for things to be different instead you either accept them as they are or work to change them but you do it without the self inflicted pain.

    I’m not offering theory here, as we speak my sister is in medical ICU being treated for sepsis, it is her 16th day in the hospital. Her chance of dying is increasing daily from about 30% now to about 50% the longer they treat her. If she makes it she can expect a long recovery with permanent mental and physical setbacks as compared to her life just a couple of weeks ago. She acquired this infection during her hospital stay.

  27. Suleiman
    May 22, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    I’m sorry, I lost interest in reading this thread when Howard proposed that God does not suffer. Such a God is not scriptural. Our God suffered and developed the “bowels of mercy” described in the Book of Mormon. He feels for us and bears our burdens. The LDS God is not the God of St. Augustine, outside of His creation, and without body, parts or passions. God suffers with us because he loves us, much like a parent loves a child or we should love each other. You can’t choose not to suffer, you can become a creture that does not love.

  28. kaphor
    May 22, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Sacrifice is defined as, “An act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.”

    I think she’s combined this definition with her discussion of tragedy.

    I’d also thank #27 for the excellent point regarding the bowels of mercy of Christ. And when I think of the various tragedies in our own lives I can’t help but think Chris is calling us in our own (smaller) ways to develop that same compassion when he says, “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith…”

  29. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Bowels of mercy? Compassion and feeling for us is not suffering. Love does not require suffering to be love, you are conflating the two.

  30. Bob
    May 22, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    I agree__Love does not require suffering to be love. But it is hard to love, and at some point not suffer from our loving. I would not WANT to not suffer if I were losing something I loved and valued.

  31. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Fine Bob it’s optional, go ahead and suffer then.

  32. MC
    May 22, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    “Okay, please explain how your suffering helps your parent’s situation or your own or anyone?”

    Why does the fact that my suffering is unhelpful mean it is self-inflicted? If my son died, I would suffer. Maybe that suffering isn’t going to bring him back. Doesn’t mean that I have a choice in deciding whether or not to suffer. Acting as if all emotional pain is a choice, I mean, honestly that sounds like an emotional crutch for people who can’t stand the thought of suffering.

  33. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Why does the fact that my suffering is unhelpful mean it is self-inflicted? It doesn’t, I’m merely pointing out that suffering has little value and won’t change the outcome.

    Something happens and we react emotionally to it. Some people are victims of their emotions, others are not. Those who are can learn better control of them if they choose to but the first step is realizing and accepting that it is possible. This is not a will power exercise although a little discipline helps at first, it is really a change in your frame of reference coming from a deeper understanding that moves you from emotional victimhood to emotional autonomy.

  34. Sonny
    May 22, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    I am pleased to announce that Howard will be the guest speaker at our next Burn Victim Grief and Support Meeting. His topic, “It has been two years guys. Jeesh, get over it and move on!”

  35. Howard
    May 22, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Your reading comprehension skills need a tune up!

  36. May 23, 2012 at 12:27 am

    Thanks, Alison, you’ve illustrated my point powerfully. Howard, the central point of my post is that suffering is not optional, not to be avoided, but in fact something that God experiences, and which he calls us to experience with him. The depth of God’s suffering is one essential manifestation of the depth of his love. If you think I am misreading these texts, that would be an interesting discussion to have, but if you are saying that I shouldn’t think this because Buddhism says suffering is not necessary, my response is that I am a Mormon, not a Buddhist, and on this point the two religions could hardly disagree more dramatically. In fact, one could say that Mormonism is the one version of Christianity that is completely and utterly opposed to Buddhism, insofar as the escape from suffering is the most essential point of Buddhism. Mormonism, by contrast, teaches that God weeps and the heavens shake in response to human misery, and that joining God in this is an essential part of our moral advancement and expansion.

  37. Howard
    May 23, 2012 at 1:39 am

    I addressed the Buddhist vs. Mormon package choice vs. adopting this single Buddhist lesson in #10 and #12. Buddha figured out how to make suffering optional. Is Buddha smarter than God? I doubt it, which means God knows suffering is optional too. So why does God choose to suffer and why do you?

  38. TLP
    May 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Let’s recognize that Howard is a poor spokesman for Buddhism. Buddhist teachings are much more nuanced than Howard’s comments suggest. Howard has told us that we can use “techniques” that “work” to make suffering “optional,” as if there is some kind of Buddhist cognitive technology that we can plug into to make the pain go away. In fact, though, Buddhism teaches that enlightenment emerges from disciplined practices that reveal the world as something other than it appears to be to the unenlightened. For a Buddhist, suffering ends not because a person figures out how to shut it off, but because the meaning of suffering is transformed. This is the result of wisdom that is earned by experience and discipline. To suggest that Buddhists teach we can end suffering by making a choice not to suffer is a terrible, superficial distortion of Buddhist thought, and (in part because of its insensitivity to the experience of the unenlightened) it reflects a lack of the kind of wisdom that Buddhists pursue.

    Having said that, I apologize for extending the threadjack. Thank you, Ben, for the original post and your subsequent comments. The older I get, the more solace I find in the tragic dimensions of Christian teaching.

  39. Rachael
    May 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Ben H, I appreciate the thoughtful response. I’d like to redirect the attention back to your original points, and follow up with a more exhaustive response via a separate post on Patheos’s Peculiar People, as promised. But for now I’d like to offer a few brief thoughts to respond to your “worry that [my] solutions might involve eliminating tragedy rather than accepting and dealing with it.”

    1) “But if our suffering all turns to our good, do we risk nullifying the suffering?”: I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Simply because sorrow can be alchemized into understanding and, eventually, potentially greater joy (that’s a separate point worth exploring– how much joy depends on understanding), doesn’t mean that it never happened. The tragedy happened. We experience the months or years of pain and loss. That never goes away, no matter where we end up; there is no “rewind.” Here I disagree in a sense with CS Lewis, when he says those who arrive in Heaven believe the whole way was Heaven, and those who end up in Hell, think the whole way was Hell. Heaven can have a hellish road. We may acquire a profounder understanding and an experience of things we otherwise would have been ignorant of that can result in some beauty for our ashes. I think it is possible to simultaneously acknowledge the loss and pain while seeing that it has been consecrated into something that can be for our good as well.

    2)”Yet isn’t [universal salvation] a bit too reassuring?” It certainly would be, if it were guaranteed; but I only said universal salvation is accessible. We may still choose another course; God will still lose us, and we may lose each other, if we so choose. The concept is not a blanket reassurance to smother our most deeply rooted fears about alienation or separation; it is a way to reinforce the role of our agency, to our detriment or to our joy.

    3) “Sorrow is inevitable, we should not try to avoid it” – I appeal to my third point, of loving in the face of loss, to disagree with you here. It reminds me of Paul’s counsel to not be overcome of evil, but to overcome evil with good; God understands and acutely feels the sorrow of loss and tragedy, but I think, combats this sorrow by continuing to love. Because loving is what upsets the equation; it doesn’t cancel out sorrow, or eliminate it; it simply is the superabundant response that can help us accept tragedy, even as we ceaselessly battle it.

    I look forward to exploring these ideas more! Thanks again for all the insights and questions.

  40. Howard
    May 23, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I’m not attempting to be a spokesman for or a teacher of Buddhism.

  41. Suleiman
    May 23, 2012 at 3:42 pm


    I don’t believe you can defend your position from the scriptures. When one loves another, one feels grief when the other grieves, and pain when the other is in pain. I would argue that this experience is evidence of the Savior’s admonition to “be one” and “love one another.” We bear each other’s physical and spiritual burdens. I’ve seen so many church leaders weep when they’ve been informed of or witnessed tragic circumstances.

    Your doctrine is a denial of this process and it is self-deceptive. If I witnessed a husband unmoved by his spouse’s or child’s pain, I would never think that he loved her. Is love and venerability a choice? Yes. And outside the bounds of mental illness, I remain unconvinced that anyone who truly loves can avoid suffering while a loved one suffers. That is why the God of Mormonism weeps and why that God is love.

  42. Howard
    May 23, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    You are conflating suffering with other emotions including empathy and you are conflating weeping with suffering, unmoved has nothing to do with this. Developing the option to suffer or not is not prohibited or excluded by the scriptures.

  43. Ben H
    May 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    Heaven can have a hellish road

    Nice line, Rachael! Thank you for your response (#39), which helps a lot to clarify what you had in mind in your post, and in a way that I find very congenial and satisfying (just like the other things that were more clear in your post!). I really like your item 1; knowing that suffering turns to our good makes it more bearable, but doesn’t change the fact that it is suffering. On item 2, then, it looks like you and I are on the same page, seeing universal salvation as a possibility and something we (and God) hope for, but not a guarantee. On item 3, I think we actually agree, but it is tricky to talk about what is happening here. We may not quite understand one another, because I’m not always sure my words are capturing my meaning, either. I want to say that our joy overcomes our sorrow while also saying that the sorrow remains. I also think that sorrow feels different when we accept it and grieve, rather than fighting against it and perhaps telling ourselves we don’t need to accept it because we might be able to avoid it (e.g. by fixing the problem). I also think that there is something that feels right about this sorrow, which I’m referring to as a serenity, even though it is a serenity in sorrow . . . which might seem contradictory.

    Anyway, thanks for these great responses, and I look forward to your follow-up post!

Comments are closed.