Religion and Suffering: a Lemon (Drop)

I didn’t want to bother my mother—that’s what I remember most. I was choking on a lemon drop in the back seat of her Dodge Spirit, but she was driving and I didn’t want to bother her.

I must have been ten, or maybe a little younger. I had just gotten out of Sunday school, which is where I’d gotten the lemon drop. One of the teachers gave it to me after class was finished. Once it was lodged in my throat, I decided that this was what I got for doubting the logic of religion—divine wrath.

Because I did doubt it, very much. I was gearing up for major surgery then, and my grandmother had told me not to worry about how I suffered because—the greater I suffered on Earth, the larger my mansion would be in Heaven. Or something like that.

It was supposed to be comforting, but all I could think about was what would happen down the road for me. I was having some trouble walking. But what if the surgery went really well, and I grew up to be a successful person? Did that mean that I’d be put up in a studio apartment when I got to Heaven, even if I was a good person?

What’s so admirable about suffering, I wanted to know.

It’s funny that I, of all children, would put my foot down. I count five alcoholics in my life at that time; silent suffering was a part of my survival. But of course I didn’t want to suffer forever, and I didn’t want to suffer for not suffering.

I think I felt guilty for finding flaws with the religion I was supposed to be studying, and that was part of why I didn’t try to get my mother’s attention when the lemon drop went down the wrong way. Also, though, I felt like I deserved to die for not knowing how to eat candy properly. Or, more precisely, that I deserved to die if I could get myself into this mess and I couldn’t get myself out of it.

So, instead of kicking my mother’s seat, I remember sitting forward to see if I could just lean over and spit up the candy. I tried to clear my throat, felt how solid and stuck the thing was, and blinked down at the ice scraper lying across the floor of the backseat. Yellow. I accepted that I couldn’t help myself. I understood that if I didn’t alert my mother I was going to die. But I didn’t mind that I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t feel like drawing attention to myself. I was going to let it go at that, let it all go, and just—you know—die.

At least that’s how I felt for the moment. Maybe it would have been different when I really started to suffocate. I don’t know, because something made my mother look at me in the rear-view mirror. Something made her ask me if I was okay.

I shook my head.

“Are you okay?” she asked again, but she was already pulling over. Eyes flicking from the mirror to the road to the mirror, she said: “You’re choking.” She sounded as calm as I felt, as serious as my deliberations had been.

I nodded. She didn’t say anything else to me, just got out of the car and walked around to the right passenger door, away from the traffic. I slid over to unlock the door, in no particular hurry, and she helped me from the car. I don’t remember her face—she turned me around so quickly—but I remember watching the cars go by us as she wrapped her hand around her other fist and brought both down together, underneath my ribs.

The power was incredible. The lemon drop shot from the middle of my throat to the top, and stuck again. For the first time since I’d started choking, I wanted something strongly—to tell my mother that it was working, that she was doing it, to tell her not to give up. And I couldn’t.

“Come on, come on,” she said, “again. One more time, okay?”

She brought her hands down, and the lemon drop shot out of my mouth and into traffic. I was stunned. I wanted to cheer because I wasn’t going to die, and I wanted to laugh because I’d just spat candy into someone’s rear window somewhere. Instead I burst into tears. My mother whirled me around again and pulled me into her arms. We stood there, hugging and crying, as other people drove by wondering what in the world had happened to us.

I remember thinking we’d hurry back into the car then, but my mother just kept holding me. She couldn’t be bothered with making dinner, or whatever it was we were rushing home to do.

I asked her later how she knew that I was choking, and she said I looked pale in the rear-view. But that didn’t explain why she looked in the rear-view at all.

“You were very quiet,” she said next.

But that doesn’t make sense either because I was the quietest of quiet children. I played more inside my head than out, and I knew I shouldn’t disturb people if I could help it. I didn’t like to misbehave, and I was always mindful of adults trying to focus, or listen, or beat a headache. My silence didn’t mean trouble like it did for other mothers. It meant business as usual.

I don’t like the idea that suffering earns you credit in this or any other world, because I don’t think suffering is competitive. Or a sport. I think, as a great friend once said to me, that everyone has a sob story. We’re all on a journey; it goes up, it goes down. We learn things, both by avoiding obstacles and by smacking into them head-on and then recovering. Then we die.

We all die.

And that’s why I don’t think that the Sunday school teacher was a tool for God’s wrath, or that my mother was alerted by God that she should look in the backseat. Because there is no saving any of us, really. Not in a way that matters for any divine being. If there’s Someone there, why should He or She care when we come along if sooner or later we all do?

But my mother certainly has a stake in my well-being. We talk about a creator—a being of benevolence and anger, for whom we model our behavior and try to be better people—and I wonder how it is we could be talking about anybody else. Always watching, wanting the best. Sometimes she lets me learn by struggling, but mostly—like in that poem, Footprints—she carries me.

She doesn’t want me to suffer, if she can help it. She would rather I bother her.

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