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§ October 25th, 2009 § Filed under Chapter 34: Big Tragedies vs. the Ordinary Pt I § Tagged , , , , , , § No Comments


A satellite image of an enormous hurricane about to make landfall. I asked "why do these tragedies happen?" And See Do began to take me into "the big stuff."  Image Credit: unknown, to come.
A satellite image of an enormous hurricane about to make landfall. I asked “why do these tragedies happen?” And See Do began to take me into “the big stuff.” Image Credit: unknown, to come.

           On Saturday, I went over to the restaurant where Susan bartends. She was busy keeping up with the late afternoon traffic. In between, we grabbed snatches of conversation. At one point, she asked “So what’s new in the world?”

            I answered, “Did you see? There was a big earthquake in Pakistan. Just happened this morning.” Susan said “Oh, wow, no. Everybody okay?” and I shook my head no and said “They’re saying there could be thousands dead.” Susan said “Oh my God, that’s horrible.”

            After tending to more customers, Susan came back and suggested that there was a question I should ask See Do. “Why do these things happen? Why these tragedies? Like Katrina. Why does that happen?”

            That night I went to bed close to midnight and while still finding sleep I began to ask the questions of why there are disasters like hurricane Katrina? Why are there these disasters that can take so many lives?

            And the answer came. See Do let me know that we were heading into very serious territory. This is the big stuff. If I felt ready, he would explain it. And it was going to be a long night. Here is the essence of what came through.

            As human beings we are moved greatly by these apparently random events that can erase thousands of innocent lives in a single stroke. We are shocked to sadness and drawn to help. And we should do what we can, but we need to understand our place and the place of these events in our world’s greater moving. We need to look deeply into what it is to be a human being living in the temporal reality on this world of ours.

            We also need to be aware of our weakness for awe at great numbers. Great numbers are all around us if we look. Events are constantly unfolding with the same difficult consequences all around. And very nearby. And we must remember that it is true that “the sacred is in the ordinary.”

            We felt great sadness for the thousands uprooted and left homeless by a huge hurricane or typhoon. Yet, in a large city like we were in, walking home we may pass five “ordinary” homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk. And feel little.

            He reminded me how not long ago, in August, I was heading out to buy something and rounding the corner of Ontario and Rush I came across a homeless man apparently asleep on the sidewalk. It was mid-afternoon and hot, in the mid-90’s. He was very dirty and disheveled. He was lying face down with his arms at his sides. Unfortunately, sights like this are not uncommon in many large metropolitan areas.

            I walked by him and went on my way.

            After completing my errand, I headed back through this same intersection. Now there was a police ambulance and a patrol car at the corner. Several police were standing around talking. And a man was photographing the area of sidewalk where the man had been.

            And it occurred to me that the man was very likely dead. And that he very likely had been dead when walked past earlier.

            Of course I tried to put this terrible idea out of my head quickly and went on with my day.

            But here was a tragic death. Squarely in front of me. In the midst of prosper, on a busy corner of a great city, a human being’s life had ended. And I walked by. We experience sadness and call on others to help when we hear stories of great numbers, but cannot see the life around us. For some reason we can not grasp the sadness and pain in the ordinary lives around us. And we are very selective in how we choose the disasters that we will give our emotions to. A thousand here cause outrage, while a thousand there are ignored, maybe even laughed off.

           One death, alone in the world, is not enough to move us to act. But isn’t every death one death?

           We bemoan that the poor were left behind in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina to suffer. But a single homeless man in Chicago is forgotten. And we give ourselves permission to forget him, because he is, what? Poor? This is a pointless circle of illogic.

           Much of this world is about life and death. It is about our ability to learn from what we see. And then to do the things that will lift humanity. This is not a small responsibility.

           See Do was building an argument. And seeing it would begin to shape a greater view of my place in the world. An important lesson was unfolding. Remember, there is only one. And now I was learning that one is not a small number.

           — continued (Disasters vs. the Ordinary, Pt II)