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I get really mad at Stephen Hawking sometimes.
I think about this man – this great, honorable man who taught us so much about the world – and I find myself frustrated by him. Frustrated by his atheism. Confused by his outlook on life – by his unrelenting stance on the meaninglessness of the universe beyond random chance. How could he not see God in that which he studied?
For me, Hawking’s life and death are intimately personal. The disease from which he suffered is one I know too well. My grandmother was diagnosed with ALS with dementia in 2009. She died less than a year later.
I see Steven Hawking, and my first instinct is that it’s not fair. It’s not fair that his family got so much longer with him than I got with my grandma. It’s not fair that he got to live so long with this disease and that because his access to technology and his own body supported him for so long, he’s seen as a miraculous success for this disease with no cure.
But there’s also something about Hawking and his view of life that deeply troubles me. I know well the suffering Hawking had to experience in his life. There were likely moments where he struggled to speak something he desperately needed to express to a loved one, who could not decipher the meaning behind the words that his mouth could not enunciate. He will have woken up one day unable to move his fingers – later, unable to support his body on his legs, and still later unable to eat, drink, swallow. His mind was trapped inside a body that could no longer contain him, and he was given an expiration date and no hope of a cure.
As a devout Catholic and as someone who watched my grandmother and my family grapple with ALS, I have trouble reconciling Hawking’s atheism with his disease – almost as much trouble as I have reconciling his genius, his love of the cosmos, with his belief that there is nothing beyond it. I cannot bear to think that this suffering that he underwent, that my grandmother underwent, and that thousands of individuals per year undergo has no purpose – that it simply is.
I realize my anger is unfair. I also understand it’s unfounded, and it’s the exact opposite of how one is called to evangelize to a person who denies the existence of God. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to take this frustration out on Hawking. After all, when one undergoes immense suffering and pain, it is easy to deny the existence of God. The simple path is to claim that no loving God would allow a person to wilt away into nothingness.
What’s more difficult to ponder, but what remains at the center of my heart and gives me the hope to honor my grandmother’s memory every day, is to gaze upon the cross and recognize the way Christ’s death transformed suffering – including my grandmother’s and Stephen Hawking’s.
Lent is a particularly apt time to reflect upon the suffering of ALS. This disease takes away the patient’s voluntary muscle control, causing him or her to lose all ability to take care of himself or herself. I am comforted knowing that in the incarnation and on the cross, Christ, too, surrendered control of His body. He, too, was unable to use his hands, unable to support his body, and eventually could not bring air into his lungs. He understood, physically and spiritually, the pain and progression of ALS – not just in his immediate suffering, but in his taking on of all suffering and sin in the world. It is this knowledge that gives me hope. I can rest easy in the confidence that Christ understood my grandmother’s suffering and that her wounds have been transformed into glorious testaments to the love she produced in this world.
Maybe the reason I get so frustrated with Stephen Hawking is that I feel sad for him. I’m heartbroken that he didn’t have this same hope. To him, the suffering undergone in the battle to simply live each day with ALS was nothing more than a motor neuron disorder that resulted in loss of voluntary muscles and, eventually, death. I cannot grasp that worldview, particularly in a person who so outlived the life expectancy of ALS as to be considered miraculous by professionals. I’m simultaneously so frustrated with and so sad for Hawking, that though he grasped such large and complex realities in the universe, he never had the chance to grasp the deeper meaning of his own life and suffering.
Fr. James Martin, S.J., tweeted his reaction to Hawking’s death, stating, “The great thinker did not believe in God, but it seemed to me that his whole life was a revelation of God’s profound love and boundless creativity. May he rest in peace and may the mysteries of the universe be fully revealed to him.”
While this meditation certainly does not diminish my tumultuous feelings about Hawking and his death, it will be my prayer these days as I continue to see posts about Hawking online and am reminded of my grandmother. I will rest in the knowledge of God’s unending mercy and in the great mystery of divine revelation, the path through which God most certainly worked in Hawking’s genius and his life.
I will also keep in my heart the many Stephen Hawkings who still live, think, and seek answers in the created world. I must take my own immediate reaction of frustration, my desire to shout, “can’t you see!?” to them, and recognize in it my own weakness and sinfulness. I must approach those in my life who have undergone suffering with compassion and patience – and my prayer must continually be that they may one day find peace in the understanding of their pain that transcends time, space, and even physics.
Molly Daily is currently pursuing her M.A. in Communication. She has a B.A. in Political Science and Spanish from the University of Notre Dame.