Yesterday was a big day! Tullian Tchividjian’s indispensable new book Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free finally hit the shelves, and its release could not dovetail more perfectly with the theme of this past weekend’s conference (recordings should be up tomorrow), namely, how you and I interpret and experience suffering, and whether or not there is any hope to be found in its midst, especially in light of the cross. In the interest of full disclosure–and as you’ll read in the acknowledgements–yours truly was fortunate enough to help with the manuscript a little. We’ll be posting a full review next week, but to celebrate the release itself, I thought we’d reproduce one of the passages that turned out particularly Mbird-esque. It comes in chapter 4, “Moralizing Suffering,” in which Tullian unpacks the universal human tendency to link suffering with some kind of deserving (i.e. “who sinned, this man or his parents?”). Giddy-up:
Today we live in a culture where instead of people having done something to deserve their troubles, we all seem to believe that people deserve something for their troubles. If bad things happen to good people, then they deserve more good stuff! No one typifies this mentality (and its pitfalls) more than America’s favorite television “loser,” Mr. George Costanza.
George: So he’s keeping the apartment. He doesn’t deserve it, though! Even if he did suffer, that was, like, 40 years ago! What has he been doing lately?! I’ve been suffering for the past 30 years up to and including yesterday!
Jerry: You know, if this tenant board is so impressed with suffering, maybe you should tell them the “Astonishing Tales of Costanza.”
George: (Interested) I should!
Jerry: I mean, your body of work in this field is unparalleled.
George: I could go bumper to bumper with any one else on this planet!
Jerry: You’re the man!
You might recognize this dialogue from Seinfeld. In the episode in question (“The Andrea Doria”), someone promises the long-suffering George Costanza a new apartment in his building. But then a fellow tenant, who happens to be a survivor of the famous Andrea Doria shipwreck, voices a claim, at which point George’s offer is revoked. According to the tenant association, suffering earns a person a higher place on the list and, thus, a greater reward. George, who in classic biblical (and comedic) fashion, is his own worst enemy par excellence, both the cause and the victim of an absurd amount of suffering throughout the show’s run, decides to plead his own case. He runs through a rudimentary list of his misadventures, and it leaves the board in tears:
George: In closing, these stories have not been embellished, because—they need no embellishment. They are simply, horrifyingly, the story of my life
as a short, stocky, slow witted bald man. (Gets up) Thank you…. Oh, also … my fianc[é]e died from licking toxic envelopes that I picked out.
This is a brilliant and hilarious characterization of how many of us confront suffering. Rather than face the underlying reasons for our distress (or look outside of ourselves for some relief), we attempt to leverage our pain for reward. Suffering becomes another way to justify ourselves, another form of works righteousness—a competition just as grueling as the obedience one.
For George, and many of us, victimhood becomes a tool of entitlement, a method for cracking the code of karma. But it doesn’t work. Not for George (the apartment ends up going to someone who bribes the landlord), and not for us. On the show, George’s stubborn refusal to give up makes for some inspired humor. For those of us who live our lives off the soundstage, however, this is no laughing matter.
Order your copy of Glorious Ruin today!
As a bonus, here’s the breakout session (“about nothing”) I did in NYC this year on the show, which incorporated part of this episode: