Monday, March 14, 2011

Tsunami, T.V., and Reality

I am going through today as if it were a normal day. Studying and considering problems of theology and history. Checking and writing correspondence. Social networking. Sharing, as I often do, some of my work with my son (we had a conversation about the five pillars of Islam). Laughing at Josefina's antics.

The forsythia has finally bloomed. I am dry and comfortable in a house that Americans would consider too small for seven people, but in reality has plenty of room. Even as I write this, I am watching a baseball game on television. Books, writing, laughing, flowers, baseball.


A couple of days ago, the planet cracked. A massive flood destroyed the homes of millions of people. They are close (I don't know how close) to a nuclear catastrophe. Is there still more to come? No one knows.

So we keep checking the news. And we pray, of course, for the people suffering in Japan. What I am trying to understand is why I feel a strange distance from, and lack of sensitivity regarding, these cataclysmic events. Is it because Japan is a developed country, and their own infrastructure is actively engaged in dealing with the problems at hand? Unlike Haiti, Japan doesn't seem like one big bleeding wound. Refugees are housed. Rations are distributed. Japanese scientists tell us in fluent English that power plants will be brought under control and that this is not another Chernobyl in the making.

This is an epic disaster. It is still taking place right now. Yet the Japanese are enduring with their characteristic stoic dignity. Perhaps I am calm because they seem so calm. But that makes no sense. I know that underneath the surface is the pain of lives washed away, loved ones lost, the destruction of dreams--millions of hopes dashed, millions of lives permanently thrown off course. My heart goes out to them in solidarity with their anguish. And yet they seem "faceless" to me.

I think I know part of the reason for my feelings. A lack of images. I have seen, again and again, the video of that massive wave pouring over farmlands and carrying away houses, a video filmed from the air. I have seen the smoke pouring out of the nuclear plants. But most of the media images are from a distance. The disaster does not yet have a "face." The media have not yet "captured" it and packaged it for my imagination. Perhaps because it is too big and too mysterious for them to express with their images.

And I am Marshall McLuhan's 21st Century Media Man. I live in the "global village", where the roads are the organs of mass media. In terms of what captures my attention and kindles spontaneously my feelings of empathy, I belong to a vast "tribe" of people who connect to my life electronically through television and streaming video, and also (in a way that would have surprised McLuhan) through the ubiquitous and discursive written word that abounds everywhere thanks to forms of electronic mass media that the celebrated futurist did not foresee in the early 1960s.

After the earthquake in Haiti, there were crying babies and bloodied bodies and wailing mothers right in my face. Everybody felt it (unfortunately, those people are still suffering, but we have forgotten about them). This is different. We are all numb, or else we are standing still, waiting for the next thing to happen. Maybe I am holding my breath until those reactor cores cool down. In any case, the emotion is very peculiar.

Shoot, the Red Sox are leading the Yankees 2-1. See what's in my face?

I am not pleased with this aspect of myself. I am a dislocated man. The people who must engage my concern are first of all the people who have been given to me: family, friends, community. Those who are suffering, however, deserve whatever I can give in resources, in sacrifices offered, in prayer. But Media Man seems too much tossed on waves of images and impressions, on what appears in the moment, and on the fluctuation between horror, spectacle, morbid curiosity, and forgetfulness of whatever is out of sight or discourse.

The whole world has entered our sensory life and our awareness through the images and ideas that technology enables us to share. This is not bad in itself. But it must not control us. Instead it calls for new forms of self-mastery, memory, imagination, and empathy. It calls us to enlarge ourselves as human beings.

Let us pray for the people of Japan in their suffering. Let us pray that they be spared further disaster. Let us pray for all the forgotten suffering peoples of the world, especially those we meet every day in the flesh.

With God's grace, let us give our love--in the circumstances He chooses, using all the means He affords us. Let us grow larger through love.