Es war Erde in ihnen, und
sie gruben. . . .
Es kam eine Stille, es kam auch ein Sturm,
es kamen die Meere alle.
Ich grabe, du grí¤bst, und es grí¤bt auch der Wurm,
und das Singende dort sagt: Sie graben.
O einer, o keiner, o niemand, o du:
Wohin gings, da’s nirgendhin ging?
O du grí¤bst und ich grab, und ich grab mich dir zu,
und am Finger erwacht uns der Ring.
There was earth inside them, and
they dug. . . .
There came a stillness, and there came a storm,
and all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too,
and that singing out there says: They dig.
O one, o none, o no one, o you:
Where did the way lead when it led nowhere?
O you dig and I dig, and I dig towards you,
and on our finger the ring awakes.
(Michael Hamburger, tr., Poems of Paul Celan)
Say the near past and the far past if you want, picturing a journey there on foot, or excavations of varying depth and complexity. But in our technological civilization, travel has become so fast, so easy, so painless, and our contacts with the dead so infrequent and unreal, it’s easy to forget the perils. “What charming folklore!” exclaims the modern reader of Amos Tutuola’s strange stories. In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, he warns: “DO NOT FOLLOW UNKNOWN MAN’S BEAUTY”:
But when they had travelled about twelve miles away from that market, they left the road on which they were traveling and started to travel inside an endless forest in which only all the terrible creatures were living….
[T]hen the complete gentleman in the market that the lady was following, began to return the hired parts of his body to the owners…
- and by then it was too late to turn back.
Recent news reports describe former fishermen in Sri Lanka not only putting as much distance between themselves and the ocean as possible, but refusing to eat seafood. The president of Sri Lanka is being urged to help revitalize the fishing industry by publicly consuming one, symbolic fish. It’s not hard to imagine the viceral revulsion survivors must feel, their antipathy toward the ocean that had been like a nurturing parent.
A strangely prescient meditation by Sarah Hinkley Wilson in the Christian Century, published on December 28 but doubtless written well before, reflects on Psalm 29 (“The voice of the LORD is upon the waters: the God of glory thundereth: the LORD is upon many waters….The LORD sitteth upon the flood.”) Wilson reminds us that, in the world of the Hebrew Scriptures, the waters are associated with the forces of chaos and destruction from the Creation story, through the Flood, through the Exodus myth where the waters of the Red Sea destroy the Egyptian army, and the waters of the Jordan present an inviolable barrier for an entire generation, condemned to die in the wilderness for their lack of faith.
In the Bible, wild nature is not something to be trifled with. Wilson concludes:
[W]hatever the voice of the Lord is saying under the circumstances detailed in the psalm, no one can hear it and live. If this is the voice that produced the succession of devastating hurricanes in the Gulf last fall, the only sensible solution is not to worship, but to evacuate. You can’t ride this storm. You must, as Luther said, “flee from God to God,” from the God who drives you out to the same God who welcomes you home.
This God, who is over many waters and sits enthroned over the flood, has himself been swept overboard, immersed and engulfed in the river Jordan [Matthew 3:13-17]. Baptism with water is not enough, for God also flashes forth flames of fire: he baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. Water and fire on their own are words of God that are encoded and indecipherable. To worship God in unmediated nature is to risk ruination. But to drown in the waters of baptism in which the Lord himself was drowned, to receive the pentecostal fire of the Spirit which the Lord himself sent – in this way we creatures of nature can worship our God in nature, and live. [Italics added.]
Fierce as this seems, it strikes me as possibly a little too timid, a little too pat in its implied moral that, after all, it’s best to worship indoors. Are Christians not called upon to imitate Christ, and Jews to imitate Elijah, Moses and Miriam, all of whom were severly tested in the wilderness? I am aware, however, that many readers of this passage are likely to have the exact opposite reaction, recoiling in horror from the thought of having to partake of such a strange fish as this God or Christ who appears so capricious – who may even seem to derive telluric power from feeding on the untimely dead. How can a God who is supposed to be [insert favorite adjective here] perpetrate or permit [insert name of catastrophe]?
The problem with trying to worship God “outside protective church walls, in the wilds of Creation,” notes Wilson, is that “you might not like what you hear.” The implication is that many believers choose to confine their religiosity to pleasant-sounding things, half-truths that make them feel safe and snug as they warm their hands in front of the burnt offerings. It would be nice to imagine that such narrow-mindedness is the special provenance of fanatics and fundamentalists, like the woman Susan of A line cast, a hope followed sat next to recently on a plane:
At the point where she tried to draw some connection between the earthquake and tidal wave and some divine vengeance God wanted to wreak on all Muslims for following a faith that celebrating killing, I cut her off in anger, then buried myself in a book. I could have explained to her that there were many thousands of non-Muslims in those areas, patiently dealt with her massive misperceptions like I had with the other statements of prejudice, but it was obvious that this woman was permanently lost in a sea of ignorance.
But the way I see it, we are almost all swimming in similar waters. Isn’t it human nature to believe things that are comforting and easy, and to reject whatever challenges us? Rabbi Michael Lerner’s response to this age-old problem of theodicy (“to justify the ways of God to man,” as Milton put it) started out strong.
Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year!! The difference between the almost non-existent coverage of this on-going human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions.
Say it, Rabbi! He was a guest on a call-in radio program shortly after the disaster took place, he writes, and he marveled
how many people responded to the question ["Where was God During the Tsunami?"]…by calling in to give messages that were roughly of the following sort: I am really angry at God, and this is precisely why I don’t believe in Him.
I don’t know any other non-existing being who gets such a bad rap. It’s as if people need to invent God in order to blame Him for something about which they are justifiably in despair.
He goes on to remind readers that the notion of God as Prime Mover (or totalitarian ruler, for that matter) comes from the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition, and is not an original or even a desirable component of Judeo-Christian thinking.
Instead, understand God as THE FORCE OF HEALING AND TRANSFORMATION IN THE UNIVERSE, the aspect of the universe that is the source of love, kindness, generosity, social justice, peace and evolving consciousness, and that this aspect of the universe permeates every ounce of being, every cell, and unifies all being as it moves the being of the universe toward greater and greater levels of love and connection and consciousness, and makes possible the transcending of that which is toward that which ought to be. Seen this way, God is not the all-powerful being that determines every moment of creation, but rather the part of creation aspiring toward love, kindness, generosity, peace, and social justice which is evolving toward greater power to shape our common destiny to the extent that we choose to embody it more fully. Or in more traditional theological language, God is a Creator, and the creation is still taking place as the God energy of the universe develops and manifests more and more through the universe, shaping it to be more fully in accord with God’s aspiration for a world of love, compassion, justice, peace and generosity.
This sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Especially since it allows human beings of their own free will to participate in the work of world-healing. I’m down with that, I guess. Except that already this notion of evolving and developing makes me nervous; both usages are popular distortions of what I consider to be the true meanings of these words. (“Evolution” is simply change; no progress is implied. And “develop,” etymologically, means not to build up but to strip down, to uncover the essence of something.) Trying to think of God – any god – as “a force” makes me queasy. And the essay goes downhill from there, with a consideration of a strand of thinking Lerner calls “The Ethical Biosphere”: that “the living planet, the gaia energy of our planet, cannot reach a state of being settled and calm until the moral and spiritual realms are more centered and connected with the universe’s ultimate moral design.”
In this view, the physical world will be unable to function in a peaceful and gentle way until the moral/spiritual dimension manifest in the behavior of God’s creatures coheres with God’s will: that is, is filled with justice, peace, generosity, love and kindness. Till then, gaia will be restless, its tectonic plates shifting, its weathers unpredictable, its diseases finding new ways to reproduce.
Imagine having to share a plane ride with someone who thought like that!
This is an example of the Grand Narrative theory of human or planetary history, and there’s no denying that various versions of it have played a central role in the shaping of most Jewish and Christian worldviews. To this day, most of us find it hard to think of history apart from the modern myth of progress, which is a direct descendent of Biblical eschatology. The ancient inhabitants of the tiny kingdom of Judah, beset by one national disaster after another, invented the Grand Narrative theory of historiography, which says: “My little life makes sense, because it is all part of a huge, almost unimaginable Plan – which will eventually end happily ever after.”
In other words, life makes sense because someday it will all end.
The poet Rodger Kammenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus and Stalking Elijah, also has an essay on the Tikkun website. Disasters don’t have to make sense, he maintains.
There is no explanation and I do not accept the answer suggested by the Buddhist idea of group karma, that whatever happens to a group is somehow the result of a previous action of that group. In this life or a previous life. You can believe that if you wish, but I don’t believe it in this case. I don’t believe it because this happened to children. They didn’t have enough time in this life to deserve this death. And in a previous life? No, that is too abstract for me. The explanation lacks specificity and I already lack too much specificity when I am dealing with a number of deaths so huge, and at such a great distance. I need to feel more, not less. One time I asked the Dalai Lama how he would respond to a parent who had lost a child. And he said – these aren’t his exact words – that when you lose a child you are constantly thinking of that child in your imagination. He called the child a “dear one.” And he said, “You must know that your ‘dear one’ does not want you to suffer, to feel so much grief.” It was a meditation I found wholly beautiful. He added that for a Buddhist, suffering is in the nature of things and so he would try to remind a Buddhist to reflect on that. But he said, for a Westerner, there would arise the question of meaning, which boils down to the question of Job, why would a just God allow the innocent to suffer? The question is just as profound for an individual loss as for a mass disaster: it doesn’t get more profound, just more inescapable. I don’t believe that a mass disaster, in and of itself, tells us anything about God. I don’t believe in a God who punishes through disaster. The disaster is. That is exactly the way I would understand it, without adding my own interpretation, without supplying a meaning or completing the sentence. The disaster is. The tragedy is. And I need to abide with it, and feel it, instead of seeking an answer, because the answers just make me complacent and take me away from the children on the beach, and the father with the dead child in his arms.
As the psycholinguist Walter J. Ong observed (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word), the invention of writing systems causes a sea-change in human consciousness. “Deeply typographic folk forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events, and hence as necessarily powered: for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface.” A story unfolds as a scroll that we can return to at any point, with an end we can always skip ahead to, ignoring or perhaps skimming quickly through the many devil-haunted details that come before. The spoken word, along with the silences that surround it, is gradually devalued. It takes events of great horror and magnitude to stun us into silence, and to make us feel the weight of each word in our hearts.
We dig, we dig, we dig. We journey into the past so easily in a literate civilization, taking our pick of this history or that memoir, living perhaps with the works of long-dead authors in a kind of cohabitation so intimate that we are liable to forget entirely that these are the words of the dead. We practice very few of the numerous precautions – call them taboos if you like – that people in oral societies tend to observe in the telling or embellishing of stories. For example, for native peoples in a huge swath of North America, ordinary stories – stories told outside a ritual context – traditionally could never be recounted during the half of the year between the spring and autumn equinoxes. The (to us) puzzling explanation for this is that summer is when the snakes are active, and snakes have complete intolerance for narrative embroidery! Only when the ground is hard and frozen, here in the north, can tales be told. (Though in fact this prohibition extended far south, into lands where frosts are unknown).
In the Bible, too, the serpent is the cleverest of creatures. In the original telling of the Garden of Eden story – before centuries of interpretations changed the way we read it – the serpent is not at all evil, much less a stand-in for Satan. He is simply a smooth talker. Here in the “Laupe” portion of the blogosphere, I think most of us are quite adept at second-guessing ourselves and questioning our motives for always wanting to explain, to embroider, to talk smoothly and draw meaning from every event. Thus the past two weeks have seen a number of quite compelling pleas for silence or extreme circumspection, for example at Nomen est Numen, alembic, The Middlewesterner and Hoarded Ordinaries.
But humans are storytelling creatures perhaps above all else. The vernacular body presented “A story” based on elck’s own experiences in India these past few weeks.
Civic disorder seems a natural state for a country whose philosophy is more ethereal than that of those Greeks who sought to impose rational design on the world’s fearsome Kaos. Here, chaos is embraced for the elemental truth that it is.
The main action unfolds on the plane ride home.
In my seat, I catch up on the news. The Times of the India gives the latest death toll from the earthquake as a hundred and twenty thousand. A smaller front page article says “352 thousand babies will be born today”; the article discusses the daily birth rate, and the daily death rate (150,000). An attempt to set the horror of catastrophic death in context. Inside, there is a quotation from the Vedas about tranquility in the midst of sorrow. The grand arithmetic and the spiritual verities are helpful, but it is weird and discomfiting to confront the photographs of the watery disaster, to read some of the human stories behind the news. Flying away from the region of the catastrophe, the story begins to become real. Or rather: the story was real before, but it now becomes tainted by sentimentality (this problem worsens after I return to the US).
I fold away the newspapers and begin reading a book I picked up in a bookshop in Bandra the previous day, The Undiscovered Country by Eknath Easwaran. It is a book about death, about “exploring the promise of death.”
The old man in the blue sweater finally gets up from his seat, three rows in front of mine, and shuffles past us and goes to the bathroom to take his leak.
I won’t spoil the ending, for those who haven’t read it yet. Suffice it to say that this is a model of the storytelling art, and that the ending takes one completely by surprise with its wrongness, which at the same time seems somehow right – or at least unavoidable – and thus tragic. For tragedy is, above all, a human construct.
“Death should never be faceless,” elck intones; “death is always personal.”
“What is the possible response,” asks Beth at the cassandra pages, “other than tears, and an attempt to help?” (I like it that she says “possible” instead of the expected “proper.”)
But, of course, help can take many different forms: gifts of money or labor, concrete efforts toward preventing a repetition of the disaster, or more intangible gestures aimed at world healing and transformation (tikkun). My favorite response to this disaster so far comes from Beth W. and her husband Buck, as recounted in Switched at Birth. A couple hundred trees at a time, they are replanting their forest, devastated last fall by Hurricane Ivan. Only the day before, Beth had written that
The hurricane rearranged my own personal walking woods, and I’ve been damn put out about it. That’s the blind, self-seeking, pride-filled truth of it. My meditation walks became distracted ramblings which I had begun to eschew for the bland indoor treadmill.
But this morning, it’s as though some fog of depression or grief had lifted, bouyed by nature’s insistence on reasserting itself.
“The joy is back,” she writes, but significantly, for her, that’s just the beginning – not an end in itself.
Setting a line, I plant a seedling, walk four steps, look around for volunteer plants, dodge thick prickly briars, and plant another one. The late afternoon mix of glare and shadow makes it difficult to distinguish brown from green.
I think of the children, the mothers, the fathers, and how their ocean swallowed or crushed them. Pausing over my orange metal dibble, one foot resting on its metal edge, I draw my left hand across my eyes and wonder for a moment if I can complete the task.
Continuing, I whisper a name as each seedling goes into the damp soil. . . “for you, Jayanga. . . for you, Raj . . . for you, Harmiel. . . . for you, Rasheed. . . for you, Sunil. . . for you, Mahindra. . . for you, Sando . . . for you, Crishan. . . for you, Jaseem” — for you all, for you all, and water them with tears, with love.
Love: an age-old answer, perhaps the finest our civilization has to offer. Or is it really just another question, raised to a higher pitch? As the piece at The Middlewesterner says (rearranging Tom’s originally italicized words into the poem that they refused to be):
Which is the dancer,
which the dance?
Who is eater,
who gets eaten?
Who gives back?
And on our finger the ring awakes.