Tuesday, January 04, 2005



I've been back at my post since Saturday, but I'm not yet ready to post fully about what has been most on my mind. If you want a glimpse of what's up there on my mind, you can read my comments on this post by Jason Kuznicki, as well as Jason's response and my comments. (Jason rightly took me to task for mini-posting in his comments instead of linking from my main page.) You can also see posts by Paul Musgrave, Brandon, Greg (times three), Jason, Siona, and Tony.

As these posts and comments will show, to me the most serious questions raised by the tsunami are questions about the ultimate significance of life itself. The question of what makes life and death meaningful is of course raised as urgently by one death as it is by 100,000 deaths. Based on crude death rates from 2004, about 150,000 people will die again today, and another 150,000 tomorrow. Another 150,000 will die the next day, and 150,000 the day after that. If this continues as it has in the past, you and I both will be numbered in that 150,000 before too long. Perhaps that fact does not bother you the way it does me, but I love life, and so I see death as a problem.

The Protestant theologian Karl Barth wrote, "A man looks forward. We take a turn, as it were, of 180 degrees: behind us lies our sin and before us death, dying, the coffin, the grave, the end. The man who does not take it seriously that we are looking at that end, the man who does not realise what dying means, who is not terrified at it, who has perhaps not enough joy in life and so does not know the fear of the end, who has not yet understood that this life is a gift from God, who has no trace of envy at the longevity of the patriarchs, who were not only one hundred but three hundred and four hundred and more years old, the man who, in other words, does not grasp the beauty of this life, cannot grasp the significance of 'resurrection.'"

Death is a problem for anyone who loves life and hates suffering. It's a standing problem that doesn't go away. Massive and unexpected death and destruction of the scale seen in South Asia only brings to the surface a question that human beings are unusually adept at keeping submerged: Is death all we have to look forward to? Barth implies, "No." I think I agree with him. But I'm not always sure.

I know I resolved in my last post not to be so serious around here, but I'm more resolved to be honest about what I'm thinking when I'm thinking it. And a question of this magnitude, of this perpetual seriousness, warrants silence more than speaking. That's one reason I'm taking my time before trying to say anything more about this here. I don't know how long it will take me, but be assured I'm thinking about it and taking it seriously. And be assured that even speaking on the subject will not signal my ceasing to think about it.

The other reason for more silence is this: It is possible that using the tragedy of others as a springboard for thinking can inhibit compassion. The heart is more important here than the head: that's something that I'm confident of, even if I'll have to defer giving you reasons why. I fear, for myself, that rattling on about the meaning of these deaths, about an explanation for this disaster, will interfere with feeling compassion for those who suffer. (I speak here about my own experience of what happens to my heart when my head rattles on.) Com-passion, by definition, means suffering with. There is of course a very limited extent to which I can actually do that, privileged as I am to eat three square meals today, sit at my computer, drink coffee, and listen to jazz. In what sense can I be said to "suffer with" those who have lost everything?

Perhaps, at least, I can respect the fact that many of these victims have probably lost, along with everything else, any good explanation for their loss. Then who am I to offer one right now? To suggest that it all makes sense would be an affront to the bald fact of their suffering, which is simply senseless to them and nothing else. So compassion, in this limited and personal sense, requires me to be silent about the subject of meaning for a little while longer, instead of trying immediately to banish the mental anguish that comes from not knowing why death occurs (as if my mental anguish even compares to theirs). Will they know of my silence? No, but what else can I do?

There is another thing I can do, at least right now. Oxfam America is a good organization. If you, like me, can only "suffer with" vicariously, by sending money to help feed and clothe and care for the victims, please consider doing so.

Collective Improvisation:

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