"We must live differently in the world, according to these different assumptions: (1) that we could always remain in it; (2) that it is certain that we shall not remain here long, and uncertain if we shall remain here one hour. This last assumption is our condition." Recent events in Asia put an exclamation point on Blaise Pascal’s concluding sentence.
Few contrasts are more jarring than the juxtaposition of scenes from Indonesia and Sumatra with typical television fare in America. The absurdity of reportorial excitations over toppled trees or flooded streets is obvious when placed alongside the massive destruction caused by walls of ocean water that traveled hundreds of miles to unleash their fury. Next to this awesome display, the breathless promos hyping "The Amazing Race" or "Desperate Housewives" are embarrassing.
Indeed, most of our everyday concerns are ruthlessly exposed as trivial diversions when viewed through the lens of an event that ripped the life from thousands of human beings and is draining the vital force out of thousands of survivors.
Tragedies, whether manmade or natural, have the bitterly redeeming virtue of focusing our attention on what is important--if we choose to pay attention. But for most of us, so much of our time is consumed with petty activities that we are tempted to reimmerse ourselves, as soon as possible, into concerns that could only be justified if our lives lasted forever.
One way to deflect attention from what stands grimly before us is to smother the event in political or ecological quibbles: Did the Bush Administration miss an opportunity to show its concern for victims of the tragedy? Has America’s response to the disaster been stingy? Has Western consumption of shrimp and the lure of luxury vacation spots led to the destruction of lagoons that might have buffered populated areas from deadly waves?
Such questions are sophisticated ways to avoid the obvious. They are reminiscent of Ivan Ilych’s focus on the terms a medical specialist used to describe his worsening condition--"vermiform appendix" or "floating kidney." What Tolstoy’s self-absorbed character finally came to realize, amid constant pain, was that Death was starring him in the face.
By all means, let us aid those who suffer and set up warning devices and study ecological patterns that might mitigate future disasters. But let us not lie to ourselves about the larger truth revealed by this event. Our lives are short, fragile, and uncertain. No government can guarantee even seventy healthy years. We ought, therefore, to live in a way that acknowledges these facts--not fritter away our hours mired in sleaze, partisanship, and mindless consumption.
To do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God are the bare essentials set forth in the Old Testament book of Micah. It is a trinity whose actualization rests in large part on the realization that Asia’s mourning is also our own.
Of Gerasim, the servant who served Ivan so cheerfully in his last days, his master said, "How easily and well you do it all." To these comments the strong peasant replied, "We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?" The tawdry popular cultures of America and Europe cannot survive an insight of that magnitude.