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The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and its Meaning

Read this Web-Exclusive Book Review by Janet Kinosian.

Job had it right all those years ago when he queried God about his tribulations: “Why me?” Well, if he didn’t actually ask that question straight-up, that’s what the pages of anguished prose in the Book of Job meant, and it’s this age-old scurry to find meaning for calamity and suffering that’s at the heart of author Peter Trachtenberg’s lithe prose in The Book of Calamities.

Trachtenberg writes from the vantage point of his self-proclaimed emotionally coddled place in life as “a middle-aged middle-class American who’s had the preposterous good luck to live half a lifetime without knowing hunger or homelessness, life-threatening violence, or serious illness, only the garden-variety sorrow of his parents’ deaths and the self-inflicted wretchedness of his bad habits.”

His starting-off point is a good friend’s sudden death from cancer. It sends him headlong into a global hunt for the underbelly of calamity, suffering, and pain–from Andrea Yates in a Texas jail to a Manhattan mother who lost her son on 9/11 to Rwandan genocide survivors who now preside as judges over government hearings for their tribulators. He speaks with Sri Lankans who survived the recent tsunami and Vietnam veterans seemingly stuck in their grief.

His ideas about how Americans deal with sufferings are unsettling. He contends that although everybody endures trials, “Americans have the peculiar delusion that they’re exempt from suffering…and that those who suffer somehow deserve their suffering.” Baby boomers, he suggests, are the generation most allergic to calamity and pain as this “fantasy of immunity arose out of traditional American exceptionalism but became prevalent only amid the euphoric abundance of the postwar years. It is a child’s fantasy and it has made us a nation of children.”

Trachtenberg believes this is evident in the seemingly helpless ways Americans deal with major illness, and why we have no national health policy but vote for politicians who slash medical aid to the poor. It’s also evident, he claims, in our collective paranoia about crime and why the 9/11 attacks plunged much of the country into “ a paroxysm of incredulous rage and self-pity…and why our government wouldn’t let us see the coffins of the soldiers” as they returned from the ensuing cathartic wars. It is why, he notes, that “antidepressants are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States.”

He believes that because of most Americans’ sense that they shouldn’t have to suffer, they are “inflicting great suffering on others, and in all likelihood we will bring further suffering upon ourselves. I don’t want to speculate about what form this suffering will take; however it comes, I’m willing to bet we’ll be unprepared for it, unprepared in the deepest psychic and spiritual sense. Clueless.”

He also argues that Americans measure grief in ways other cultures don’t: financially (via lawsuits galore and emotional-stress damages in the multimillions). “Americans like to measure things, and money is one of the ways—maybe the chief way—that tragedy is measured…” he writes. “Money has become its inward registry as well, being easier to count than tears. It is, at any rate, how suffering people reassure themselves that their suffering has been recognized.”

Although Trachtenberg’s broad reporting uncovers answers from high-profile sufferers, he offers no ten-point wrap-ups or pithy statements on the possibilities of calamity bringing redemption. It can be chaotically rendered, his subjects seem to say, but the chaos it ignites in one’s life is malleable and changeable. And change can be for the good (the mother who lost a son at 9/11 and now runs schools for girls in Afghanistan) or for the worse (the suicide of Trachtenberg’s good friend at the end of the book). Just ask Job, who knew a thing or two about calamity and learned that life continues forward despite its presence in our lives.

Janet Kinosian, a Los Angeles-based journalist, writes for The Los Angeles Times, Reader's Digest, and dozens of other publications. She previously reviewed The Classmates: Privilege, Chaos, and the End of an Era on AARP The Magazine Online.

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