Can we interpret disasters for meaning?
Our first reaction is no. It doesn’t seem appropriate; we fear to trivialize, to make shallow intellectual pretensions out of suffering. But nonetheless, each of us has a very specific reaction when something terrible happens in the world. For an instant, when we see the pictures, read the first paragraphs of the front-page article, we contextualize ourselves and our own lives in a world where unimaginably horrible things are happening. The moment is soon over, and we can then immediately abstract the bleak information. Life goes on. Nothing has made the cosmic clock stop ticking yet.
Personally, ever since 9/11 I find myself reacting in a strange way to stories of disaster. I search through article after article, looking for reassurance: some expert somewhere saying that luckily, mass casualties were averted by timely evacuations. Or that the body count is in the dozens, if it seems like it could be in the hundreds; in the hundreds, if reaching the thousands seems possible. Or that strict building codes have kept the earthquake from causing the destruction it once might have. Or that prudently executed safety precautions at the nuclear reactor have neutralized the possibility of a meltdown.
At an earlier point in my life I may have considered disaster and suffering a naturally occurring, unavoidable fact of existence; a reminder of our vulnerability, but also perhaps an encouragement for our mutual striving. The seas were occasionally rough, but the ship was trustworthy, and her captain fearless.
Was it always like that? I don’t know what it’s like to grow up under the specter of possible nuclear annihilation—the missile crisis was long in the rearview mirror by the time I was born, and the decades-long chill between the superpowers had already begun to thaw out. Did people abstract things back then as efficiently as we do now?( And all of those missiles are still there, still pointed in our general direction, capable of blowing us up a thousand times over.)
I’m not overstating things, am I, when I say the ship doesn’t feel as steady today? The waters are not just rough—they are treacherous. We’re perched precariously atop the waves, wondering where each swell of the ocean will take us. And the thought always lingers…will this one flip the boat? We always seem to be dancing close to the fire, don’t we—how close were we, really, to a second Great Depression in 2008? To another quagmire of a guerilla war in the Middle East, in 2006? To living in a country no different from Beirut or the West Bank, where terrorist acts are weekly or daily occurrences, in 2002? Regularly we face the danger of slipping over the edge, and then the edge seems to recede. But not all the way. What’s keeping us from going over? Our American-ness?
I just want it to be over. And can we go back to the way we remember things? When gas prices didn’t swing wildly every other month, when houses appreciated in value every year, when unemployment was low and terrorists were isolated and we didn’t owe a trillion dollars to China and we didn’t all live on credit and we didn’t get contradictory messages about needing to consume to stimulate the economy and not living beyond our means and the economy is recovering one day and falling apart the next and tidal waves are treating coastal cities like sand castles? Can’t things just settle down for good?
I feel like we’ve been living in some kind of purgatory for the last ten years. And I’m holding out hope that it’s just going to end one day, without me having to do anything about it. But I’m starting to have my doubts.
Why does Japan have so many nuclear plants? Because they have no coal or oil, so they rely heavily on nuclear power for their electricity. It’s not a problem that’s going to go away. We can plump for worldwide economic prosperity all we want. Where’s the fuel coming from? Will we just keep digging deeper and deeper into the ground, searching desperately for ever-more-remote pockets of compressed bio-matter? All the way to China, maybe? At which point they’ll probably ask us for the money we owe them. And all that carbon dioxide. We’ll just have to agree to be hotter together, it appears.
And still, I keep my fingers crossed. Hoping all of this just blows over one day. That we won’t ever have to learn another lesson; that the forward march of progress is the natural state of things. It is innocence, or the worst type of cynicism. Probably both.