Day 164

March 13th, 2011

How are we supposed to cope with tragedies like the one in Japan?

Natural disasters have a special place in the spectrum of tragedy.  They’re different from, say, World War II or the Holocaust.  Human-caused disaster has villains and heroes, and we can use them as projections of good and evil to try to make “sense” out of what happened.

Not that there’s really any way to make sense out of the deaths of millions.  But names like Hitler and Stalin at least give us something to point at.  And then the scholars can step in with their historical analysis and psychoanalysis and talk about economic causes and racial resentments and fanaticism and all the other temporary aliases of evil.

But when a couple of tectonic plates slip and cities crumble and burn and the Flood is loosed, indiscriminately breaking people to pieces and carrying them out to sea, what are we left with? What do we blame? Plate tectonics?  Without plate tectonics, the earth would be barren and sterile. Blame the sea, where life arose in the first place?  What kind of sense does that make?  We might as well seek the answer in astrology.

Or when fleas from rats spread a disease that killed anywhere from 30% to 60% of the population of Europe in the early fifteenth century.  How do we make sense of such an event?

These kinds of things occur someplace beyond the limitations of our moral spectrum.  It’s said that insects see colors we don’t, that they can process parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are invisible to us.  We’re absolutely unable to imagine these colors.  The best we can do is mix together colors we can see, create hybrids of the known.  So with an event like the Japanese tragedy, we mix up a little geology, a little theology, some compassion, some outrage, some helplessness, and call it a reaction.

We might as well shake our fists at God, if we believe in God, for all the closer it takes us to understanding anything.  And in a sense, that’s not a bad metaphor because surely God, if God exists, is profoundly indifferent to a shaken fist.

In the end, what remains for me is a conviction that the universe is monstrously indifferent.  And that’s why it’s so important that the Japanese stand patiently in line in their ruined markets and continue to bow to each other as they sidestep the rubble in the streets.  Someone needs to teach the universe a lesson.

12 Responses to “Day 164”

  1. Dana King Says:

    We’re not going to teach the universe anything. These events are the universe’s way of teaching us some humility.

  2. minervaK Says:

    I find this event to be providing a fascinating study in the differences between western and eastern culture. Were something like this to occur on U.S. soil, there would be mass disorder, looting and riots — and for what? For what purpose? The Japanese seem to understand, in a way that we don’t, that the most important thing, when stuff like this happens, is to maintain compassionate and orderly relations with one another. A westerner looks at it and thinks “those people are nuts!” Personally, I think they’re miles ahead of most of us.

  3. Maria Yolanda Says:

    I agree with Dana. Mother Nature is a powerful mysterious organism that has its own needs. Who is to say all the atomic testing, gas and oil drilling, salt water pumping into it’s interior, plastics, miles of sun reflecting pavement, toxic drugs and chemicals altering the earth’s balance hasn’t created this tragedy. I have always felt that we are like a bad virus on the earth surface. We give it
    a sneezing coughing cold and weather like hurricanes, tornadoes, volumes of rain and snow are created to heal itself. Great minds have been trying to figure out and predict earthquakes to no avail. How can we understand the balance of such a misunderstood and neglected power?
    When the earth has had enough of our abuse it will simply slough us off it’s crust. It will remain long after we have vanished.
    At least “Charlie” has quieted. Maybe he realizes how insignificant his meltdown really is in the scope of things.

  4. Stephen Cohn Says:

    I like the way you’ve opened up the question but I have an alternative possibility for an answer. We are supposed to learn something from such an event but we have to dig deep to discover what it is. It’s nature’s version of a Zen Koan – it’s anything but obvious but much can be gained from contemplating an answer.

  5. Beth Says:

    The comment to Dana was beneath you. You are far too intelligent to think that anyone is suggesting that the Japanese brought this horror upon themselves.

    The earthquake was an inevitability in that the archipelago sits on top of the most active tectonic plates on the planet. The Japanese are one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and they did what they could within the limits of human intelligence to protect themselves. Maybe more would have died if they were not. What if Haiti had suffered like Japan? God didn’t do it. The forces of nature under the crust of the planet did it.

    Humanity gets warnings every now and then about the power unleashed by natural phenomena. Sometimes we listen, most of the time we don’t.

    Dana’s comment reminds me of the story I heard growing up about the hurricane of 1938 that arrived on the northeast coast pretty much unannounced. It blew over Long Island and the water took homes and lives as the land mass was buried under Long Island Sound.

    Today, Long Island is densely populated, far more so than in 1938. Will Long Island experience another hurricane like that? Probably. Is Long Island better prepared so that there will not be a huge loss of life? No. Hubris, arrogance, or whatever will lead to another tragedy at some point in the future.

    It is everyone’s sincere hope that Japan will never have to suffer like this again. But they will be better prepared for it if it happens again because they will use their brains and their brawn to be ready just in case.

  6. micael hallinan Says:

    Why do we always look for someone to blame? We live in a physical world that is subject to the laws of physics. Gods kingdom is spiritual. We will help the Japanese materially. God, through his grace, will gives us the compassion to do this. He will grant the Japanese the peace to bury their dead and the courage to go on living. This is what he offers all of us in trying times. These are not trivial gifts and their worth should be carefully weighed before shaking your fist at him.

  7. Beth Says:

    Thank you, Michael.

    My God is a mighty God, and, as the kids used to sing, “a mighty good God is He.”

    Strong faith doesn’t make this any less a horror but the Japanese have faced terrible things in their history. They are strong and, while they may not know it now, they are being held up in love and sympathy.

    All the people in the world are praying to the God of their understanding to bring solace and that is no small thing.

    I think God likes us to question Him every now and then. It gives Him the opportunity to provide us with answers

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I withdraw my comments. I’ve said what I have to say, and I’m not going to debate about God because it’s the world’s least productive pastime.

  9. Robb Royer Says:

    Christopher Hitchens, when told in a ‘does god exist?’ debate that he would have ten minutes to make his point, said he didn’t need ten whole minutes to disprove the existence of god. I’m with him. I can only add if god does exist, it certainly has a puckish sense of humor.

    By the way, hi to you micael. Been a while. You should know there hasn’t been a moment since I saw you last when there hasn’t been at least one Hallinan displayed in my home. Thanks for the everlasting uplift. I didn’t answer earlier because the situation and the conversation seemed so dour. It doesn’t seem like things are going to brighten in the immediate future so… hi anyway.

  10. EverettK Says:

    Good idea, Tim. Too many wars have already been fought… It’s like kids on a car trip, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” It’s annoying and non-productive. But, the more things change, the more things stay the same. 🙁

  11. Sylvia Says:

    And that’s why it’s so important that the Japanese stand patiently in line in their ruined markets and continue to bow to each other as they sidestep the rubble in the streets. Someone needs to teach the universe a lesson.

    I liked this line a lot.

  12. EverettK Says:

    I am God, I said, and I am Good, and I am Great, and I am one big, Almighty SOB. But, at least I have a sense of humor (of godly proportions).

    I mean, I’m the only one in town, All Knowing, All Powerful (so obviously I’m the only one, or how else would I be All Knowing and All Powerful). But I’m bored out of my gourd, so I says to myself, I says, “Hey, I know (obviously, as I’m All Knowing, remember?), I’ll create a Universe!” And just like that, I did. And hundreds of billions of galaxies were born (first I had to invent numbers, but who’s counting), each with hundreds of billions of stars. Pretty impressive, huh? That’s a LOT of stars, even for someone as All Powerful as me! That’s, like, you know, a 5 with 22 zeroes after it stars! Neat huh? But what’s a star without necklaces of planets strung around them? A God’s work is never done.

    But then, I was bored again. Nothing was happening, just silly rocks going ’round and ’round, so then I says to myself, I says, “I know, I’ll create Life!” (The life of the one and only God is All Mighty lonely, you know?) I started out with little tiny viruses, but they needed something to infect, so I created single cell bacteria, and then I had this god-like brain-stroke: how about if I stick a bunch of these cells together and create even bigger things for the viruses to infect? Cool! So next came the platypus.

    But eventually I realized that I was still bored, so I decided to create something that looked just like me, in my own image. And that’s how Jimmy Durante came to be such a great comedian (remember my godly sense of humor?). No, seriously (I am, after all, a Serious and Jealous and All Mighty God), first I created Adam (although he wasn’t called that at first, because I hadn’t invented language yet, because there wasn’t anyone to talk to until I created Adam, a chicken-and-egg thing, you know?). But then he got lonely, ’cause I was always out playing marbles with planets, so I took a piece of Adam (I’d already shot my wad creating him and didn’t have the energy to start over from scratch, even Gods get tired, you know?) and made an inferior model, Eve. I told her she must always listen to Adam’s commands and obey him, because Adam was just like me. (I invented language in between creating Adam and Eve, so he and I could shoot the breeze, when I wasn’t out shooting marbles.) Adam was perfect (he was created by Me, after all, in My image), but Eve was missing something, and she was ALWAYS getting into trouble. How that came to be, I’m not sure, because I’m All Knowing and All Powerful, but hey, even the Great Ones shank a ball now and then.

    Originally I created Adam and Eve as stupid idiots who just lazed around in the Garden and screwed their useless brains out. And worshipped me, of course. But one day, Eve, that idiot, found my Tree of Knowledge and ate of the Fruit (because the Snake, that Devil, told her to). Wait a minute, where’d the Snake come from? I am All Powerful, All Knowing. Who let the Snake into my Garden? I’m pissed! I’m an Angry and Jealous God, I am! Anyway, now Adam and Eve and all their little tykes that came from their idiotic screwing Knew things, and that wasn’t good. But hey, never one to pass up the slightest whim that came my way, I decided to have some fun with it (remember my godly Sense of Humor?). I laid down the law: you can kill anything I’ve created that you want (in fact, I demand that you do so on a regular basis, as the only way I know that you love me is if you kill Peter the Rabbit and Fluffy the Ewe, and burn them so the smoke carries them up to me in the heavens), but don’t you dare kill each other. You’re my prized creations, you’re the Kings of my Kingdom, and only I may kill you! (And to make it really funny, I’ll do just that, in the most arbitrary ways and at the most unexpected moments. What’s funnier than mass confusion and unexpected twists and turns in the plot?)

    Sadly, as it turns out, my creations weren’t as perfect as I thought. In my Godliness, I gave them Free Will. How I thought I was going to remain All Powerful when other creatures had Free Will, I have no idea. Well, not really, I mean, I have to have an idea, because I’m All Knowing. I’ll just say that I work in Mysterious Ways. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Yours is not to ask or wonder why, I’m Mysterious. (Snort. Damn, I’m a funny guy! Where do I come up with this shit? Oh, right, I created it. I created everything. But it’s not my fault when those idiot humans do something stupid! I laid down the law and I expect them to follow it.)

    What’s truly amazing is that they stop believing in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny (who’s always trying to steal my thunder, even if I did steal everyone else’s holidays) and Santa Claus. But they keep believing in me, without any proof and against all reason. I guess not everyone got an equal share of the fruit from the Tree of Evil… er… Knowledge. Sorry, got confused there for a moment. But all these other religions that sprang up, before Word of Me reached them, that’s pretty hilarious, too. Of course, they’ll boil and blister until the end of my game of marbles, since they never worshiped Me with burnt rabbits and ewes, even though they had no way of knowing about me. It’s their parents fault for not teaching them properly, so they can all go to hell. Hilarious!

    And then there’s that whole Mary and Joseph mess. I mean, normally humans are screwing like rabbits, but that idiot Joseph, even after he’s married to Mary, he still doesn’t lay a hand (or any other appendage on her). Which was fortunate, because I needed a Virgin to carry My Seed, to give birth to My Son (I wouldn’t have a daughter, they’re damaged, remember?). And no seed of mine is going to go where man has gone before. Besides, if man HAD gone before, how would other men know that it was My Seed and not His? Er, his. But that was my biggest joke. Send myself, or my son, or my ghost… whatever, it’s confusing, and that’s part of the humor, don’t you see? …down to this little podunk village in the middle of the desert, let the humans kill me, er…my son, and then tell them that he died voluntarily to save all of them, but ONLY if they all believe it. Otherwise, I’ll fry their asses for eternity. Of course, most of the people alive at the time will never hear about it, it will take hundreds of generations for the news to spread throughout the world, but hey, I’ve got a game of marbles to play. Don’t bother me with details, I have a hard enough time keeping track of every sparrow that falls.

    But, I’ll tell you, I’m getting REAL tired of sitting up here, slinging out new souls, every time a couple of humans get horny. Well, at least when one’s a man and one’s a woman. After all, I never intended for two men or two women to fool around. Can you imagine anything funnier? (God, what a sense of humor!) Anyway, back to the souls, it’s getting really old. I’ve got a game of marbles to play with some planets in the next galaxy, but these damn Kings of the Earth keep making new babies, so I have to keep slinging out new souls for them (and then they have the temerity to kill some of those babies before they’re even born, sending those souls right back to me like rejects!). And then the damn fools keep dying, so I’ve got this unending stream of souls coming back, and it’s getting damned crowded around here. It pisses me off, and I get so Angry that I try to shake some sense into them, but they’re so stupid that they think it’s just an earthquake and that I’m acting in Mysterious Ways again.

    Sigh. I’m starting to long for the good old days when I was lonely and I hadn’t yet screwed everything up with Creation.

    Maybe the Joke’s on Me.

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