Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Is our suffering God's will?

By Joshua Prager, Special to CNN
updated 12:02 PM EDT, Mon June 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 23 years ago, a bus crash forever changed the life of Joshua Prager
  • Prager's broken neck led to paralysis; only half his body functions normally
  • He visited others affected by crash, learned that they accept it as God's will
  • Prager: I see the crash as result of a dangerous road and poor truck driver

Editor's note: Joshua Prager is the author of the new book "Half-Life: Reflections from Jersusalem on a Broken Neck" published by Byliner and writes for publications including Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, where he was a senior writer for eight years. He spoke at TED2013 in March. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- At noon on May 16, 1990, a runaway truck struck a minibus at the foot of Jerusalem and bound together the lives of 22 people: 18 Israeli Chasidim, two American Jews, an Israeli Arab and an Israeli Jew who had just found religion. The last died at the wheel of his bus. The rest of us returned to our homes to heal -- a medical jet flying me, my broken neck and a respirator back to New York. I was 19.

In time, half of my paralyzed body returned to life, my spastic left side not quite keeping up with my right. I was a hemiplegic and would be always. And when last year I returned to Jerusalem at age 40, stepping from the plane with my cane and ankle brace, I hoped to write of the crash and its place in my life.

It had taken me years to tease out where I ended and my disability began. Yes, I knew that had my neck not broken, I would have gotten a haircut that May day, would have played baseball in college, would have become a doctor. But what of the rest?

Paralyzed journalist explores his fate

Was it owing to the crash that I was not married, that I was ever-mindful of time, that people seemed to tell me what they told no one else? I wondered if my crash-mates wondered similar things. I wondered how they had made sense of the crash. And so, 22 years after it, I set off to look for them.

***

I found the Chasidim first. They were a large extended family that, together with me and my American friend, had been riding the bus to Jerusalem where they planned to worship at the Western Wall, the Kotel. I found them in the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak. They welcomed me into their home.

Surrounded by seven shelves of holy books, Yaakov, the family patriarch, told me that God had caused the crash and spared our lives. He said we had to follow the example of Job and serve God though we did not understand him.

TED.com: There are no scraps of men

Next, I found the widow of the bus driver. She was a secular Jew of Yemeni descent and lived in the industrial town of Petach Tikvah. (She wished to keep her name private.) She told me that her husband had feared nothing but God. And, she said, it was God who had ordained the crash. "It is written," she told me. "If you don't believe that, you will go crazy."

Finally, in the Arab town of Kfar Qara, I found the driver whose truck had crashed into the left rear of the bus where I sat. Abed told me that he had become religious after the crash and that the crash was an act of God. He then paused from his coffee and his Hebrew to speak an Arabic word: Maktoob. "It is written."

I left Abed, mindful as I drove south toward Jerusalem that, in this land of competing narratives, Arab and Jew were for once in perfect agreement.

***

Maktoob made a certain sense to me, for I had long wished to see the story of what befell me written down, formed into a coherent narrative. But not by God. By me. And so, years ago, I had settled on my own variant of maktoob: It will be written.

Now -- 23 years later -- it finally is. I have written my book. And it occurs to me that whenever any of us wish to assimilate why we suffer (or prosper), we must choose between these same two narratives. We can attribute our lots to God and his writings, his unknowable ways. Or we can root them in the natural world and chronicle them ourselves -- on paper or simply in our minds. We can take comfort in ultimate if inscrutable justice. Or we can take comfort in observable reason and responsibility.

***

At first, I threw my lot in with God. Never mind that I had long struggled with the theological implications of life's evident unfairness. I was being prayed for and I was recovering, and at age 19, that sufficed. Religion and maktoob were comforts -- the notion of divine authorship (and its obvious extension, ultimate justice) elastic enough to accommodate even inflexible facts like the Holocaust and that my mom was both good and burdened with a vascular disease.

But in the end, whether one believes (or not) is not a choice. It is an empirical question. And in time, I came to see that I did not believe in a deity that choreographs crashes. I soon saw just as clearly the uncomfortable fact that I was agnostic regarding God (though my love of Judaism, its traditions and teachings, did not wane). Maktoob -- reassuring, prescriptive -- was gone for good.

TED.com: My story -- from gangland daughter to star teacher

But the need in me to make sense of things was not. Like all of us, I still needed a narrative! And as the years passed, and I failed to translate my thoughts into words on a page, I feared, as had John Keats,

"that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain."

***

I write narratives for a living. And so, seated at my Jerusalem window last year, ready to at last look back and write, I was familiar with the task at hand, the need to gather information and to then look for patterns in it.

But as a writer, I also knew to be wary of pareidolia, the perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not exist. I knew that each of us is apt to overlook those patterns that do exist if they are inconvenient or painful. And I knew that particularly those narratives we write about ourselves can be as detached from the truth as those we inherit.

And so, when written records -- hospital files, diaries, photos -- contradicted my memories, I deferred to them and tried to learn from the difference. That I misremembered that a girl in college had canceled our date after seeing my wheelchair a first time (when in fact she had long known that I used it) reminded me that I had long seen the shadow of disability where it was not present. And it was then I saw how similarly intent my crash-mates were to see God in a wrecked bus.

Yaakov, the Chasid, told me that God had saved his family because grandmother Etel had said Psalms before boarding the bus. He did not note that the family had headed to Jerusalem only because Etel had suggested they go to the Western Wall (or that God might have done better by them by not causing the crash at all).

The widow of the slain bus driver said that God had taken her husband. She did not note that he had died at a bend in the highway known by some in Israel as "sivuv hamavet," the turn of death, where between 1980 and 2010, according to the State of Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, there were 144 accidents with casualties.

Abed, the truck driver, said that God, not he, had caused the crash (adding that he had lived an unholy life before the crash, partying in Tel Aviv and Haifa). He did not note that he had ignored large yellow signs instructing him to shift his truck into a low gear (evidenced by police photographs of his brake pads). And he did not note that he had already been guilty, at age 25, of 26 driving violations.

But I noted these things. And what for so many years had seemed to point to the arbitrariness of life was soon evidence of the opposite -- my broken neck the almost inevitable consequence not of a divine plan, but of a reckless driver, a truck loaded with four tons of tiles, a backseat with no headrest, and a dangerous road. And it was out of this recognition that the narrative of a slim book grew, careful always to make sense, to reflect, to contextualize -- the obvious efforts of a once passive victim to exert agency over an ungovernable act.

TED.com: The why and how of effective altruism

That agency is important for the writer. It is what enables him or her to wring meaning from facts and observations, and then be free of them. And because agency informs the narrative, it is important for the reader too. Millennia after Job suffered, my Chasidic crash-mates put him forth to me as an example of faith in the face of sorrow. But he had ached to write his own narrative too.

"Oh that my words were now written!" Job said. "Oh that they were printed in a book!"

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joshua Prager.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT