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Everybody hurts, but what does it mean?

THE BOOK OF CALAMITIES: FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT SUFFERING AND ITS MEANING

By Peter Trachtenberg. Little, Brown. 464 pages. $23.99.

“Everybody suffers, but Americans have the peculiar delusion that they're exempt from suffering. … This book is meant to address that delusion. It explores suffering as a spiritual phenomenon. … It explores the ways that people try to make sense of suffering, in order not to be destroyed.”

So writes essayist and short-story writer Peter Trachtenberg. He believes that, while there is certainly suffering in America, our nation as a whole clings to a “fantasy of immunity” that has grown “amid the euphoric abundance of the postwar years.” In short, we badly need a reality check, and in this captivating study, he interweaves accounts of personal and social crisis and trauma. These powerful stories reveal the human need to answer five questions in the hope of surviving anguish and moving on.

Four questions are from the sufferer: “Why me?” “How do I endure?” “What is just?” and “What does my suffering say about me … (and) about God?” The fifth question comes from the witness: “What do I owe those who suffer?”

Trachtenberg approaches his subject with keen perception and measured passion. Measured, because he consciously struggles to make personal sense of suffering even as he explains it to others. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict who attempted suicide, he felt compelled to confront his own psychological pain after the death of a close friend from breast cancer. His hard work culminates in a brilliant study – lyrical and poignant, penetrating and challenging.

His skill as a writer allows him to make illuminating comparisons of unlikely pairs: the revenge killings in Aeschylus' “Oresteia” and the genocide in Rwanda; Pope John Paul II's physical afflictions and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina; a man unjustly sentenced to death row and the Old Testament story of Job. Trachtenberg engages the reader in the lives of his subjects as he explores their coping mechanisms: apathy, blame, denial, rationalization, spiritual surrender. And the tales are compelling, indeed.

It would be enough if this book were a treatise on emotionally surviving calamity, but Trachtenberg has an agenda beyond the mere education of the average, comfortable American reader. In his introduction he writes, “Because Americans don't know how to suffer, we are inflicting great suffering on others; and in all likelihood we will bring further suffering upon ourselves.” Ultimately these inspiring stories demand that we overcome our ignorance by recognizing – and taking responsibility for – the suffering that permeates our lives:

“We don't have to see suffering if it's hidden from us. We don't have to mourn dead soldiers whose coffins cannot by government decree be photographed. We won't be appalled by the shoddy treatment given wounded ones if they're sequestered in the derelict, mold-infested outbuilding of an army medical center. We needn't weigh the guilt or innocence of uncounted, unnamed enemy combatants rendered to black locations for undisclosed reasons, or feel squeamish about the coercive techniques with which secret information is twisted from them. … We won't be troubled by the poor when they no longer occupy the centers of our cities, only their flyblown margins, where nobody goes. … The just treatment of suffering begins with seeing.”

For Trachtenberg, to feign or even desire blindness would be a moral disaster – the greatest calamity of all.

Jeanette Leardi is a Charlotte writer. Her latest book is “Time for Kids Almanac 2009.”

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