It is strange – or is it? – that some of the most shocking disasters which afflict us poor humans seem to descend on us in or around Christmas time. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the Pan-Am flight 103 which hurtled out of the night sky on the unsuspecting townspeople of Lockerbie in 1988, and now the devastation of Haiti in the region’s worst earthquake for 200 years, all came within a few days or weeks of the season of peace and joy.
Of course it is only an impression. Statistically I’m sure these disasters are distributed fairly normally across the calendar. It is the very juxtaposition with the peacefulness of Christmas which creates the impression. We are shocked by the incongruity of the thought that such pain, suffering and sudden death should be lot of some while others commemorate the coming of the Saviour of the world.
But there is a fallacy at the heart of our bewilderment. Why should we be shocked by something that is the lot of every one of us – and not always in a comfortable bed surrounded by our family and friends? Our good and reasonable responses of sympathy with the suffering and bereaved, of prayer for the dead and practical aid to the afflicted, are often mixed up with the less sensible. We love sensations and sentimentalism. Why is it that a nation finds itself gripped and fascinated by the trial of a man accused of murdering his wife? Sentimentality was once aptly described by someone as working out on ourselves feelings that we haven’t got. We have the experience – the shock, the feeling of pity, the horror of imagining ourselves dying a terrible death – and miss the meaning of it all. We tend to wallow in sentiment and miss the real point. What does death really mean?
Shakespeare – in the words he put in the mouth of Julius Caesar – said it all when he wrote:
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Why does the death of thousands at one time and in one place shock us to the core when we know that the same end is the inevitable lot of all? For the self-righteous and now notorious American evangelical preacher the recent deaths of an estimated 200,000 in Haiti were easy to deal with. This was God’s punishment on a nation that had for too long played games with the devil. Now that was truly shocking. If he was a little more evangelical he might have thought about the rhetorical question put by Jesus to his disciples and others, recounted in the Gospel of St. Luke:
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them think ye that they were debtors beyond all the men who dwell in Jerusalem?
No they were not. We are all debtors, and we will all die someday.
There is no doubt, disasters can bring out the best in some and the worst in others. Among the best – prayers for the dead and afflicted; humanitarian response to the needs of a devastated nation. And the worst? Well, perhaps this. In 1755 the intelligentsia of Europe, contemplating the death and destruction of Lisbon in the great earthquake and tsunami of that year, proclaimed the Death of God – either by losing whatever faith they had or by proclaiming that, if anyone still needed proof, this surely proved that no God existed. But where are they now? They are all dead. Did they not think that in the greater scheme of things it makes little difference whether it happens today, tomorrow or in twenty years’ time?
The suddenness of death should not surprise us. It is a common enough occurrence. That death might come with more rather than less pain should not dismay us – even though we will hope that modern medicine may help us though it somewhat. The two resolutions that we should really get our heads around in the face of those two eminently possible eventualities – a sudden and/or a painful death – should be staring us in the face. Be ready – always; get to grips with the meaning of suffering and in understanding it, for everything has meaning, learn to embrace it as a part of a complete vision of life.
Take all that on board and we will probably still find ourselves shocked by the effects of natural disasters on our fellow men. There is no shame in that. We have emotions. But we will not lose all sense of proportion and hopefully we will consequently respond in a more practical and imaginative way to those who suffer if we keep our feet on the ground.
In 1927 the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem was imagined famously – and not a little mysteriously – by T.S. Eliot. It was also the year in which he converted to Christianity. His reflections on that event brought about at least one conversion to the faith and probably had something to do with his own. In it he talked of two deaths, one of which was in fact Life itself. The narrating wise man has returned home and many years later reflects on what he and his companions had encountered.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
It may seem a little heartless to offer these thoughts in a context which we still find tearing at our emotions as we contemplate the agony of the poor people of Haiti still rummaging in the rouble of their cities and towns and mourning their dead. But nothing is served, for us or them, by succumbing to an unreality which in the end does nothing but cripple the vision of the soul.