tears4About 6 years ago, I joined a clan of a popular computer game called Team Fortress 2. Since I played on their server and pitched in with a few dollars here or there to keep it running, I knew the rowdy group well enough and felt comfortable with their clan ethos. Personally, the application process felt like a full affirmation of my nerd-dom; a group of computer geeks sniffing out their own on the digital Serengeti. I passed the application and interview process (yes, they had both) and said to my wife, “I think I just got formally invited to the clan. I’m not exactly sure what that means.” What can I say? It was a venture into a world of misfits.

The clan has long since disbanded, but I distinctly remember one event that totally caught me by surprise. Part of clan membership was active participation in the clan’s website and discussion threads. These interchanges served as the community glue, where members and visitors could banter back and forth about anything—even stuff that didn’t relate to the game. On one particular day, a member of the clan posted a short somber statement that I shall paraphrase as follows:

Hi guys. Some of you know my sister had cancer. She died yesterday, and my world has come crashing down. I don’t know what to do. I’m totally lost.

 I read those words and sat at my computer dumbfounded…on a variety of levels. This player felt it necessary to lay before a near-random group of strangers a profound sense of suffering. For the moment, I’m going to suggest the gamer was male for ease of reference. Consider what his small but profound act implies when you read between the lines:tears1

  • He believed that the clan, even though it was formed to enjoy a digital game, has enough of the qualities of genuine community that it could help him cope with massive suffering.
  • Or, conversely, he was so desperate for a hopeful or encouraging word that he’d go to any length to find a community, even one that is constructed by the common experience of playing a video game.
  • He apparently did not consider embodied relationships to be a prerequisite for hearing comfort or receiving advice. To him, the clan could potentially meet some or all of his needs without the presence of real people beside him in his ‘real’ life. Or, perhaps, his embodied life was depressingly short on trustworthy people.
  • He believes, ultimately, that the relationships he built in this online environment were fundamentally authentic. No person would open up his/her private life to a group of people if the opposite were true.

No one can avoid suffering, of course, but can the digital world be used as a third place (i.e., not home or work) for sanctuary? For healing?

In some ways, the gamer in question is on the safest of footing by posting on the clan thread. Since everyone understands what it’s like to experience loss, it’s not as if he’s trying to communicate with people who have no idea what he’s talking about. My own emotions turned upside down just reading his short post—because I felt a human response to a deeply human reality. On the other hand, each person who joins an online group comes for different reasons–one for companionship, another for an amusing shared experience, another for new styles of play, etc. This gamer’s tragic situation is unusually serious for such an association, and he risks that some members of the community may not respond to his plea for consolation because the situation falls outside of the boundaries of appropriate clan behavior. Perhaps a Christian gamer could respond to him with empathy and appropriate witness … but would that be violating the same unwritten rules of acceptable behavior?

This particular gamer was not a Christian. So the presence of hope in his life was disguised at best, altogether missing at worst. He had no church to cling to, no sacrament to partake in, no community to bring him fried chicken and two verses of I Know that My Redeemer Lives. The desperation was real enough to risk the aforementioned responses, but I wonder if he would have received the gospel riskily offered by another gamer … even me.

Many of you may have heard of the indie computer game, That Dragon, Cancer. It was developed by Ryan and Amy Green, who lost their four-year old son, Joel, to a rare form of terminal cancer that was diagnosed when he was just 12 months old. The game was a therapeutic, deeply personal way of reflecting on that grief and allowing others to share in the experience. In fact, when they started the project little Joel was still alive; he died during its development. It’s a simple point-and-click game that walks you through the parents’ point-of-view, from diagnosis to death and included some original artifacts from the couples’ life together. In one heartbreaking moment, the game plays a phone message left by the wife to her husband explaining an unsuccessful diagnosis of the problem early in Joel’s life. The couple happens to be Christian, so to play the game as a Christian you sense the undercurrent of hope and faith, something that is desperately needed because the game brings tears to your eyes (on multiple occasions) as you play.

First of all, wow. How can intense grief become so public? Yet, isn’t this the same bold move as our gamer mentioned earlier?

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Because of these creative forms of grieving, I am cautious not to throw a blanket statement over all the digital world, saying, ‘This does not qualify as a healthy form of sorrow.’ That seems remarkably disingenuous and callous. Like any other family in their situation, the Greens wanted to find relief and comfort from the avalanche of sadness that comes from losing a young one. The manifestation of that effort has given other families comfort in solidarity; the game gave skin to the emotions that come with death and for many, this game was a godsend. Yet I have to ask myself how I would feel about That Dragon, Cancer if there was no church community to support the Greens behind the scenes.

The human experience necessarily includes suffering. For the Christian, we are called (at least to some degree) to a life of suffering. The rabbi-disciple relationship is one in which the disciple does everything that the rabbi does; where our Lord goes, we shall follow. And, if this is the case, we better be ready to bear our crosses. When Christ calls us to follow him, he bids us to come and die.

tears2Yet suffering has meaning for the believer. Under the pain of death our salvation was achieved. Through toil and pain we bear the curse of the Fall. Our present sufferings are real and present yet stand in stark contrast to the immeasurable joy of being united with Christ at the end of our life’s race.

One of my colleagues recently lost a family member in Colorado. We sat in his office about a month later, reflecting on a variety of theological issues related to grief and embodiment, when he nonchalantly dropped this profound rhetorical question, ‘What possessed my wife and I to drive 14 hours straight to be with my family when I could have just called?’ He went on to simply say that he had to be there. His approach to consolation rings with deep wisdom—being in the physical presence of those who suffer is itself a message of affirmation. The whole gamut of human communication is immediate; it’s in the face, the eyes, sadness of the posture. A tender touch or hug draws the sufferer into a relief that can only be experienced when the comforter’s mouth finally resorts to silence.

The tender touch or hug draws the sufferer into a relief that can only be experienced when the comforter’s mouth finally resorts to silence.

Sitting in the ashes together may be the only way the sufferer can finally relinquish the poisonous thoughts that whisper, ‘No one understands what I’m going through. No one gets it.’ When a community sits in suffering together, the bitterness of being alone has no foothold. We have a Deliverer, who was tempted and challenged in every way–even in the loss of his closest friends–yet was without sin. He can sit in the ashes with us, … yes, even in digital ashes. Praise be to God!

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.