The Book of Calamities

Trachtenberg, Peter. The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning. New York: Little, Brown & co., 2008

This was an off-list addition. Glutton for punishment? Maybe. April had already been a hard month and here I am, deciding to add to the drama by deciding to read a book about suffering. It’s perverse but I find comfort in my little, uneventful life when I am reminded of fates worse than mine…much, much worse than mine. It’s the same reason why I watch ugly shows about murder and drug addiction. It’s my constant reminder that anyone, at anytime, can fall from grace. And fall hard.

But, anyway, back to Calamities. I will be honest. I picked up the book after reading a dedication. After researching the recipients I realized I needed to know more. It wasn’t enough to be aware and move on. I wanted knowledge. Who were these people and why did they die? Notice I didn’t say how? That much was obvious. Their tragedy deserved more than two seconds of my time. Which led me to Peter Trachtenberg’s book.

The Book of Calamities covers man-induced sufferings as well as the ones seemingly without explanation. The answer to each catastrophe lies in simple words like religion, nature, sanity, hatred, illness but try explaining those words beyond dictionary etymology and terminology. What exactly IS hatred? What drives two religions to war? How can Mother Nature be so cruel to the ignorant? Who defines mental illness and calls it insanity? These are hard questions but, Trachtenberg asks an even bigger question – why is suffering such a shock to us? It happens all the time. It happens everywhere. Why aren’t we more prepared for catastrophe? Is it a cultural thing? For some reason we, as a society,  have this sense of entitlement to happiness; this sense of denial that bad things always happen to someone, anyone, else but us. Not so.

I didn’t have favorite quotes in this book, but there was one particular event that stood out. Here is the quote: “The first thing they did for me was to make me stop, kindly, with care not to make me feel any more foolish than I already felt, for who feels more foolish than a failed suicide?” (p 95). The reason why this passage stood out to me is this – in my friend’s suicide note he made reference to being embarrassed by possible failure. He understood suffering and didn’t want to make compromises to accommodate that suffering. Here’s the thing – he didn’t need to be embarrassed. He didn’t fail on May 10th, 1993.

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