Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Revisiting the Book of Job

My read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan puts me in the book of Job in September. Last year I wrote a post about a particular verse that struck me. Maybe I’ll make it an annual tradition. This year, I was struck by a couple of verses in Chapter Six. Most of the book of Job relates a series of frustrating and nonproductive conversations between the deeply suffering Job and his friends. Chapter Six is part of the conversation, and a few of Job’s comments prompted thoughts about why it is that we humans seem to so often say unhelpful things to each other.

There are a wide variety of ways that our careless remarks can make the suffering of others worse instead of better. Those of us with chronic illnesses are often frustrated when people accuse us of sin (either of being sick because of sin or of lacking faith to be healed) or make statements that imply that we aren’t very bright or don’t really want to get well. (“Have you seen a doctor?”)  Often our pain is denied or minimized. People with chemical illness frequently hear “That can’t hurt you” or “I know someone else with your condition and he’s able to do a lot more than you can.”

Sometimes a statement that is absolutely true (“God is in control”) feels unhelpful when we have a fresh or still-tender wound and the remark isn’t paired with some expression of sympathy. Job touched on the problem in verse 26. Although he was referring to criticism rather than to pat responses, he said, “Do you think your words are convincing when you disregard my cry of desperation?” Pain begs to be acknowledged. A fairly neutral remark may also feel unhelpful if we’ve heard it so much that it feels like an attempt to avoid having a real conversation.

All of us fail to respond helpfully to the suffering of others sometimes. Why do we do that?  Here are some of the many possible reasons:

Fear – Job mentioned fear in verse 21. He remarked to his friends, “You, too, have given no help. You have seen my calamity, and you are afraid.”  What are we afraid of?  A basic fear when we encounter the pain of another is that a similar thing could happen to us. Accepting that good people sometimes suffer and that there aren’t always quick and easy ways to escape means that we, too, might someday find ourselves in a painful situation with no obvious way out. Those are scary thoughts and sometimes the response to that fear is to deny the pain exists or conclude that the sufferers are doing something wrong. Surely, we wouldn’t find ourselves in their position, but if we did, we would fix it.

Another fear is that if we acknowledge the suffering as legitimate, we may feel responsible to help alleviate it in some way. That seems to be what Job was implying. After remarking that his friend was frightened by Job’s situation, Job asked, “But why? Have I ever asked you for a gift?” 

Differences in theology  I absolutely believe that God can take the messes that humans make and the consequences of living in a fallen world and turn them into something beautiful and good. I believe God has a plan. I believe God is in control. I don’t believe, however, that those truths mean that God’s people won’t suffer on earth. There are people who believe the Bible teaches that true believers are exempt from pain. I personally don’t see how even a quick skimming of the Bible or a quick glance at the world can lead to that conclusion.

One of many, many scripture passages that address the point is the “roll call of faith” in Hebrews 11. The chapter gives a long list of people who were commended for their faith in God. Verses 32 through 38 tell us that some of these heroes overthrew kingdoms, shut the mouths of lions, quenched fire and received loved ones back from the dead. That would be a handy place to stop the narrative, but it continues. We learn that others were tortured, jeered at, imprisoned, oppressed, stoned, and sawed in two. We are told that “they placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection.”  That’s the hope. That’s the ultimate plan. Maybe we’ll escape deep suffering on this earth and maybe we won’t.

Guilt – This can play a role in the minimizing of all kinds of suffering, but is often very obvious in the realm of chemical illness. If I suspect on some level, even though I try to deny it to myself, that my decisions or actions may have played a role in someone else’s pain, I can deal with that by telling myself that the other person isn’t really suffering the way they claim to be or that they shouldn’t be and could avoid it somehow.

Lack of empathy – Sometimes we’re just so focused on our own lives we fail to really see and empathize with the struggles of others. This is especially true of struggles that are very different from our own experiences. In verses 5 and 6, Job asked, “Don’t I have a right to complain? . . . Don’t people complain about unsalted food?”  Maybe Job was thinking something like, “If I complained about unsalted food you would understand because you can relate, but because my suffering is so far beyond anything you’ve experienced, you want to brush it away and are uncomfortable with me even expressing it.”

I find the lack of empathy for people in situations we can’t imagine often shows itself when people in developed countries talk about the suffering of those in developing ones. People sometimes say things like, “They’re used to it” or “It’s not so bad because everyone there is in the same boat.”  If friends or family members lose their jobs, we feel some of their pain because we relate to them and can imagine ourselves in their shoes.  On the other hand, we can’t imagine living on two dollars a day in a village with no electricity or running water, so we tell ourselves it can’t really be as hard as it sounds. If people who are “like us” lose a second child, we realize, to some extent, the depth of grief they must be feeling. We don’t generally say, “Well, at least they’re used to it.”  It’s hard for us to remember sometimes that people are people and suffering is suffering and that it’s no easier for others to go through painful situations than it would be for us to experience the same thing, even if it’s something beyond what we can really imagine.

Habit – I think sometimes we don’t give responses much thought, but simply answer out of habit. The response to “How are you?” is “I’m fine.”  The response to “I’m suffering” is “God has a plan.”  I recently corresponded with someone who told me that on one of the very worst days of her life, when her heart was broken into a million pieces, someone said, “I’m excited for you because I know God has a plan.”  Excited?  Really?  That wasn’t the most helpful thing to say on that day. A simple “I’m sorry” is generally helpful. “My heart breaks for you” is helpful. “I’m excited for you” – not so much. Surely that was a response made from habit rather than from thought about how it might be received or whether it was likely to help the situation in any way.

My husband recently introduced me to a song called “Broken Praise” that’s based on the book of Job. The “if” statements in the lyrics don’t resolve to a “then,” which bugs me a bit, but otherwise I think it’s a wonderful song. It captures well some of the frustrations of having pain deepened by the responses of others. It’s worth taking time to listen to.

We all have times when we feel like Job and times when, unfortunately, we act like Job’s friends. I hope we can all learn to do better. If you’re in pain, I’ll try not to tell you I’m excited for you. I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same for me.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Good News from Wal-Mart

I’m always glad when there’s good news to report. The current good news comes in the form of an announcement from retailer Wal-Mart. Last Thursday they announced that they would work toward requiring their suppliers to disclose and eventually phase out some chemicals of concern. Key components of the announcement include the following: 

  • The lack of specificity may come from the fact that Wal-Mart has declined at this point to disclose which chemicals it is targeting, preferring to wait until it has had time to communicate and collaborate with its suppliers.
  • The chemicals were said to be chosen based on the extent of their impact and the availability of alternatives.
  • Although they wouldn’t identify the chemicals, Wal-Mart did confirm that they all appear on the list of potentially problematic chemicals addressed in the Mind the Store campaign. (See this previous post for more info.
  • Beginning in January 2015, suppliers will be required to disclose ingredients in cleaners, personal care products, cosmetics and baby care items sold in Wal-Mart stores.
  • For many of its private label products, Wal-Mart will pursue the Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment designation.

Reaction from environmental and public health leaders has been positive. The action has been called “substantive,” “significant,” and “meaningful.”  Some have pointed out that Wal-Mart is attempting to make sure that any chemicals that replace those removed are actually safer, which has not always been the case. Others note that Wal-Mart has indicated that this is just the beginning of their action on the chemical toxicity issue.

The problem of the toxicity of everyday chemicals is a huge one and won’t be solved overnight or by the actions of a single retailer. Still, every step forward should be celebrated. I pray that Wal-Mart’s announcement will spur its competitors to take similar steps.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Good News, Bad News, and a Small Way to Help

It was a "good news, bad news" week on the chemical toxicity front. Here's the synopsis.

Good news: The Campaign for SafeCosmetics reports that Procter and Gamble has announced plans to remove the chemicals triclosan and diethyl phthalate (DEP) from their products by 2014. As I remarked in a post about a year ago (when Johnson and Johnson made a similar move), I admit to being a bit of a cynic. I fear the chemicals will be replaced by equally problematic compounds, and I wonder if removing two of the many potentially harmful chemicals in the products will be enough to make much of a difference to public health. Still, it’s a step in the right direction. If nothing else, it’s a sign that manufacturers are realizing that the public is starting to pay attention to toxicity issues. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has been pressuring companies to eliminate phthalates for more than a decade.

Bad news: The Huffington Post reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) withdrew two draft rules associated with regulating chemicals. The first would have added certain common chemicals (often found in plastic products and flame retardants) to a list of “chemicals of concern” which are subject to more thorough evaluation. The second would have required companies to disclose the chemicals used in their products and share the health and safety studies associated with them.

Clearly, the fight for freedom from toxins is a long way from over. This week, there’s a small and easy way we can each help the cause. In last week’s postI mentioned the new documentary “Unacceptable Levels.” The film will be screened in Washington, DC on September 19th. If we take the time this week to invite our congressional representatives to attend the showing, it might increase awareness and eventual action.

There are many ways to contact our representatives. The website Contacting the Congress enables users to search for their senators and representatives and then easily access contact forms. Another way is through social media. The filmmakers suggest posting the following to your representatives’ Facebook pages:

Citizens deserve to be protected from unregulated toxic chemicals. I urge you to attend the September 19th DC Premiere of Unacceptable Levels, a documentary film about the industrial chemicals in our bodies, how they got there and what we can do about it. The screening will take place at the Capitol Visitor Center Orientation Theater and is free to the public. RSVP here:

It’s easy to get discouraged by the slow pace of progress, but I do believe that the momentum is on the side of change. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Documentaries to Support

The issue of chemicals in the environment is a depressing one, but the good news is that the truth that common chemicals are unregulated and harming us all is slowly being understood, and understanding may lead to change. Two documentaries may help the cause.

The award-winning documentary "Unacceptable Levels" debuted in May. Screenings have been held throughout the summer and will continue through the fall, with September showings in Washington DC and Nashville, and October showings in San Diego. The website offers information for those who would like a screening held in their area. News reports from May indicated that the film would be available through video-on-demand outlets in July, but I've been unable to verify that it's currently available for viewing anywhere other than in selected theaters. If anyone knows otherwise, I would appreciate the information.

Living Green Magazine posted a trailer from the documentary and also listed some statistics cited in the film. These include the facts that in the last twenty years, there has been a 300% increase in the amount of asthma and a 400% increase in the rates of allergies and ADHD. Autism currently affects one in every 50 children, and in children younger than 15, cancer is the second-leading cause of death, second only to accidents.

Another documentary addressing the chemical problem is entitled "The Human Experiment" and is produced and narrated by actor Sean Penn. The documentary is set to debut at a film festival in October and the hope is that Penn's involvement will ensure the film wider distribution than it might otherwise have. Trailers for the documentary can be viewed on pages associated with the Hollywood Reporter and Safer Chemical/Healthy Familieswhich also features an interview with one of the directors.

Although I obviously haven't seen either documentary, I'm assuming that they'll both do a good job of explaining the problem. We can help the films spread the word about chemical dangers by spreading the word about the films. Facebook users might consider "liking" their pages (here for "Unacceptable Levels" and here for "The Human Experiment.") They can also be followed on Twitter. Three cheers for the people willing to put work into producing and promoting the documentaries. I pray they both do well and that the message they are trying to communicate will be received and understood.