What is your ‘why’?

“What is your ‘why?’ Why did you get out of bed this morning?  Why did you eat what you ate?  Why did you wear what you wore?  Why did you come here?  What is your ‘why?’

Life is about people…[and] we’re here to connect.  How do we do that?  Love, time, death.  These three abstractions connect every single human being on earth.  Everything that we covet, everything that we fear not having, everything that we ultimately end up buying is because at the end of the day we long for love, we wish we had more time, we fear death.  Love, time, death.”

That is the opening speech of the movie Collateral Beauty, in which Will Smith plays Howard Inlet, a brilliant, hotshot Madison Avenue creative director.  In the film’s opening scene, Howard is leading a staff pep rally, and he’s talking about advertising and the ways in which successful admen harness these three abstractions—the longing for love, the wish for time, and the fear of death—to market and sell products.  Immediately following the speech, the film’s storyline fast forwards three years, and Howard’s words become ironic.  His six-year-old daughter dies, and in his anger and grief Howard loses his ability to connect with the world around him.  For him, love leaves; time loses meaning; and death mocks.  Howard is lost in his suffering.

Collateral Beauty 1

Will Smith as Howard Inlet

 

In his Letter to the Romans today, St. Paul has something to say about suffering.  Paul says, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

For anyone in real life who knows Howard’s pain, or any trauma or distress, St. Paul’s words may seem laughable and naïve.   Of St. Paul’s words, renowned biblical scholar N.T. Wright says, with his characteristic blunt honesty, “On the surface, there is no obvious logic for this.”[i]  There is also no school of thought from which Paul derives his claim.  In Paul’s world, Stoic philosophy surely counseled steadfastness in the face of suffering—by which the Stoics meant a kind of hardbitten toughness—but for the Stoics this was an end-in-itself.  For them suffering was something to endure, but it was also without meaning, what in our own era Viktor Frankl would call despair.  For the Stoics, the highest virtue in the face of despair was simply carrying on.

We get that, and often we affirm it.  In literature, film, and even current events we extol a Stoic perseverance, and, indeed, it is better than giving up on life.  But Stoicism is not what St. Paul is talking about.  Paul says that our suffering can produce hope, and Stoicism knows nothing about hope.

Paul’s first word that merits explanation is “boasting.”  Paul says we “boast in our suffering,” which to our minds suggests that Paul is encouraging us to brag about our wounds and maladies, to celebrate them, to try and one-up our friends with them.  There’s a masochism of the soul, a sickness, in that, we know.  It is not good for us, and it must not be what Paul means.

It isn’t.  The Greek word in Paul’s letter translated “boast” does not mean “to brag,” but rather, “to have confidence,”[ii] and again, for Paul, that confidence takes the form of hope.

How can it be?  How can we, in the depths of our darkest moments, in our weakest states, when we are lost and don’t know the way, have hope?  Let’s set that question aside for a moment.

Collateral Beauty 2

In the movie Collateral Beauty, Howard is eventually visited by three Dickens-esque characters, the personifications of Death, and Time, and Love.  They are not Pollyannas, though Death and Time do offer some melodramatic Hollywood platitudes.  But Love is different, and when she enters a scene it is as if the screenwriter was inspired.  The first time Howard meets Love, she weeps.  The second time they meet, he asks her, derisively, “Are you going to cry again?”

She asks him back, “You don’t like it when I’m sad?”

He responds, “Aren’t you always sad?”

And she says, “No, I can be other things.  I can be happy.  I can be unexpected and unpredictable, and…warm, and mysterious, and home…I know you don’t believe me, but you have to trust me.”

It’s then that Howard’s suffering erupts in anger.  “Trust you?  Trust you?  I did trust you…And you betrayed me.  You broke my heart.”

Does love break our hearts?  St. Paul says today, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Paul says that God’s love in Christ gave us access to God’s grace from our very beginning; God’s love holds us in this very moment; and God’s love will carry us into the fulfillment of God’s own hopes for the world, which will be glory.  It is not love that breaks our hearts.  A broken world does that.  It is love that abides with us when our hearts are broken.

In the movie, Love says to Howard, “I’m in all of it.  I’m the darkness and the light.  I’m the sunshine and the storm.  Yes, you’re right, I was there in [your daughter’s] laugh.  But I’m also here now in your pain.  I’m the reason for everything.  Don’t try and live without me, Howard.  I am the only ‘why.’”

This is the answer to the question of suffering and hope.  We are not lost in our suffering, and we are not hardbitten and alone, because God’s love is poured into our hearts.  That is the basis for our hope.  That is what makes us Christians rather than Stoics.  In joy and in sorrow, in sublime pleasures and in harrowing pain, God’s love is all around us, and underneath us, and in us.  It is the real thing, the source of our joy, that which bears us through our present pain, and that will redeem our hope that all things will ultimately be well.  Love is the only “why.”

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“What is your ‘why?’ Why did you get out of bed this morning?  Why did you eat what you ate?  Why did you wear what you wore?  Why did you come here?  What is your ‘why?’

Time is precious, and we need not fear death, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.  That is our hope, in suffering and in joy.  That is the only true thing.  That is our why.

[i] New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. X, 516.

[ii] Ibid.