In the wake of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, thoughtful people everywhere are trying to understand how to find meaning in lives lived in the shadow of such tragedies. Although the tsunami claimed by far the more horrifying number of lives, the weather has dealt out death and destruction across the US too, and of course everyday life offers up a host of potential threats, from car crashes to terrorist attacks to an avian flu epidemic. Times like this can evoke a strong feeling of powerlessness.
That powerlessness is one of the sources of our wish to understand why. We want to know why something happened so that we can avoid it happening again. We want to think, perhaps, that it won’t happen to us because we’re different from those people it happened to.
We also ask a broader set of related questions: What does it all mean? How can I go on living my life with any confidence or happiness, knowing that there are such violent and random forces out there? We want to be able to tell ourselves a story that portrays us as something more than the vulnerable animals we are, subject to powerful forces both within and outside ourselves that we don’t always understand. Religion tries to answer both of these needs, and it also generally promises some future reward or reunion with those we have lost, so that what happens down here is seen as only the prelude to eternal happiness. On the other hand, religion can run into trouble when it tries to come up with a good reason for why a loving God would let his creatures suffer so. Tragic events can drive people both toward and away from religion.
The branch of theology that deals with this question is called theodicy, and it has a long complicated history to which I can’t begin to do justice here. However, I’ve read a number of attempts to reconcile the terrible loss of life in Indian Ocean tsunami with the existence of a loving God. None of them seem compelling to me, and one or two of them display some of the worst aspects of religious feeling.
Some people wonder if God was punishing the earth for its myriad sins. If he was, he seems unfair, since many of the drowned or orphaned children and bereft survivors in Indonesia could have played only a small role in the sins of the world. If God were outraged against sinful humanity, any of us could probably suggest some people who would make more logical targets for his wrath.
Of course, we assume that God knows more than we do. Maybe there’s more to it that we don’t understand. Also, since there are so many of us on the planet, pursuing so many courses of action, it takes an interpreter to decide just what sins God is punishing us for. Even better than finding out how to change your own actions to avoid angering God is to tell someone else what to do. I read of one person who believed that God was offended by unmarried people sleeping together. I’d almost rather believe in thunderbolts randomly blasting people out of a clear blue sky than in a God who hurls them at people based on who they sleep with.
Perhaps if you believe in reincarnation, you could claim that these seemingly innocent people had sinned in previous lives and were making up for it here. This requires a lot of faith in something for which I see no convincing evidence. A somewhat related approach, which involves balance over the long haul, is religious stories about disaster that reveal the hidden blessing that awaits the faithful. Some flood stories in folklore have to do with fresh beginnings for those worthy of them, for example, after the sinful old order is washed away. Again, someone has to interpret the meaning behind the disaster and tell you what God wants you to do in order to be among the chosen afterwards, but if you buy into the interpretation, you have a plan for keeping yourself and those you love safe.
At its crudest, this boils down to superstition. No one really believes that if you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back, but a lot of us have little rituals or pieces of lucky clothing or doodads we carry around in our pockets that we believe will placate a hostile universe and make things come out the way we want them to. These days in the US superstition doesn’t seem to be about life and death, but maybe about appeasing the deities of baseball or basketball. It might or might not be connected explicitly to a personified deity, but it serves the same purpose of giving us a feeling of agency in the face of the uncontrollable.
There’s also another story for why God let all those people die: he set things in motion but has little to do with the day to day running of the world. And although I haven’t heard it invoked to explain the tsunami, the dualist notion that God is counterbalanced by Satan or some other personification of evil also explains things in pretty much the same way. God’s powers are limited and while he may feel sorrow over what happened, he couldn’t have stopped it. If you conceive of God this way, it’s harder to find consolation or meaning than if you believe in a more personal God.
My own ideas about God are very similar to the quietism described in Owen Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul: I don’t think we can say much about whether or what God is. People who share my views, or who think that God doesn’t exist, don’t have to worry about explaining why he lets bad things happen. In fact, seeking a natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanation leads to another way to try to answer the “why” questions, namely, science.
For questions about how things happen they way they do, science is an excellent source of answers. It can explain what happened in the Indian Ocean in terms of the tectonic forces involved, the length of time the seismic pressure had been building up, and the geography of low-lying islands. The weather in the US is probably amenable to a similar analysis, masses of air moving here and there, picking up moisture and letting it go again, subject to the topography over which they travel. Even personal disasters like a cancer diagnosis or the death of someone dear to us can be attributed to various understandable factors without invoking a deity.
Scientific knowledge is the best route to learning how to understand and manipulate the material world we live in to make our lives better. Maybe someday it can provide us the tools to predict earthquakes and tsunamis, and create a warning system that works. Someone told me recently that the Pap smear is the one medical test that has definitely lowered cancer rates. Medical scientists are working on other ways to prevent deaths from cancer. We have learned a lot about how to change our diet and exercise habits to keep ourselves healthier. We’re never going to be able to prevent every car crash, but engineers do try to build safer cars and roads.
One problem with relying on science is that sometimes people put so much faith in it, or in a combination of science, technology, and policy, that they do dumb things that common sense could have told them quite clearly not to do, like living in houses under cliffs that are plainly unstable. Many risks can be mitigated, but you have to figure out which ones and you have to take action to mitigate them. I take a pill every morning to keep my blood pressure under control. I expect that there will soon be a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean similar to those available in other places, although I don’t suppose that it will totally remove the danger of loss of life in an earthquake as big as the one on December 26. People have the option of choosing safer sites for their homes. And there are all the standard pieces of advice which are cliches because they make sense: Eat your vegetables. Don’t smoke. Wear your seatbelt. Still, our knowledge of human nature doesn’t always tell us why it’s so hard sometimes to act on the knowledge we have about how we can live more safely.
Also, we don’t understand ourselves well enough to know how to deal with the internal factors that cause us grief: the violence around us that we feel threatened by, the bad emotional choices we make. How much of a contribution scientific knowledge can make in this area is a complex question; the very idea of bringing scientific analysis to bear on problems of human behavior is offensive to some, and the way to proceed is not always clear. Edward Wilson, in On Human Nature, wrote that self-knowledge may tell us how to “decide more judiciously which of the elements of human nature to cultivate and which to subvert, which to take open pleasure with and which to handle with care.” I like that balanced approach, and the idea that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean good or bad. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy to figure out. Wilson also says that there are biological constraints that he doesn’t believe we will be able to do away with, and I tend to agree with him. This rich subject will have to wait for another essay.
But even with its limitations, scientific explanations satisfy my need to know why many bad things happen, and seem to provide the best way to avoid having too many of them happen to me. However, they don’t, in and of themselves, necessarily offer a whole lot in the way of meaning or solace. We have to make up our own meaning out of the facts as we understand them. In fact, I think religious meaning has exactly the same origin. People make it up out of the facts as they see them and their conjectures; the difference is that the human origins of religious meaning are generally veiled.
I tend to look at life in terms of trade-offs. Being a conscious creature on this planet involves certain risks, and if you want the unquestionable benefits of being here now, you need to accept the risks involved. Often, science gives you a bigger picture (which in itself is fascinating and rewarding to discover) and you can see the necessity or the benefit of events that are negative in the short term or from a particular viewpoint. The forest fires that have plagued the western US in recent years are dangerous to people who build their homes in the woods, but they are a natural and necessary part of the cycle of forest life. As for earthquakes, Ward and Brownlee (in Rare Earth) argue that plate tectonics might be one of the factors that make earth a home for intelligent life. Hard as that might be to live with, at least it makes sense. We might wish for immortal consciousness, but the hand we’ve been dealt places a number of limits on what thinking meat can be and do. Given the amazing feats of which thinking meat can be capable, and the glories of being conscious on this planet, perhaps it’s a fair exchange. And for me there’s a certain amount of meaning in the sheer fact of being able to understand the world and how it works.
That still doesn’t make it easy to face the uncertainties of life with any fortitude. It’s easy to become depressed, or timid, or helpless, or cynical, or callous, or reckless—especially in times when the world is doing its best to remind you of how bad things can get. In the end, we all have to find and rely on whatever good things can get us through difficult times: words or music that offer meaning and comfort, the company of those we love. One story that I like comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, bitterly lamenting the death of his companion Enkidu and in search of the secret of eternal life, was given the following advice by a woman named Siduri:
“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”
(From The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by N. K. Sandars, London: Penguin Books, 1978)
(Or as Bruce Springsteen sang many years later, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”) You don’t have to believe in gods who mete out death while withholding life for themselves in order to heed this ancient advice. I don’t think it recommends mindless self-indulgence. What it says to me is that after you’ve looked at the bad things in life and accepted their reality, after you’ve done all you can to make life better for yourself and those around you, after you’ve grieved for those you’ve lost, you need to keep in mind this counsel from Edward Abbey: “Where there is no joy, there can be no courage, and without courage, all other virtues are useless.” Here’s to joy and courage, then.