Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Wonders of the Sun and the Terrors of the Storm

My heart goes out to all the people who are suffering in different ways from the furies of the weather in these recent days.💚 Here in the United States—only a week after the nation gathered to watch a strange and wonderful solar eclipse—a major population center has been paralyzed by a deluge from the sky.

The Weather Channel's website has had many, many pictures of the devastation wrought all along the region near the Gulf Coast of Texas. The aerial photo (above) of Houston underwater, taken by David J. Phillip for Associated Press, captures something of the surreal vastness of the massive flood that almost looks like a permanent alteration of the geography of this huge sprawling city. It's all the work of a hurricane with the deceptively benign name of "Harvey" dumping several feet of rain on Houston and its surroundings, overwhelming the area by brute force.

The waters will eventually dry up. But the human impact will remain, and the work of rebuilding homes, neighborhoods, and civic life in Houston will take years. For many people, the losses will never be replaced.

O this poor human life!😢 The things we build, the security and wealth we accumulate with such ingenuity and labor and anxious care: how fragile it all is.

Houston? No, Macao in China, flooded by a typhoon this week.
The ancient Chinese were no strangers to droughts and floods. For all the highly articulated order and ritual propriety of their Confucian system, the Chinese remained baffled before an "incomprehensible heaven," even what they sometimes called a "cruel heaven" that nevertheless—they were convinced—had its inescapable purposes.

The reference to China here is not simply to note that flooding is an ancient scourge. It also arises from current events: earlier this week, even as Houston and coastal Texas were deluged, an enormous typhoon hit the regions around Hong Kong and Macao on the other side of the world, bringing disastrous floods and sundering winds upon the people there. Indeed, disasters like Hurricane Harvey's washout of Texas—sometimes with far worse consequences for human life—happen all the time, all over the world. And human beings, from time immemorial, have grappled with the mysteries of the "heaven" above them, that enormous, awesome, usually-regular-but-occasionally-unpredictable space that seems to have so much to do with life and death. Today, our technological world has measured the "heavens" and developed a plethora of tools for analyzing and predicting rainfall, heat, cold, the flow of the winds, and even the movements of the sun and the moon.

Nevertheless, whether it is the wondrous phenomenon of last week's solar eclipse or the catastrophes of this week's floods, the vast environment that shapes our world still remains beyond our control. We fill the skies every day with airplanes, we connect with one another through the airwaves and via satellites, we send rockets to explore the moon and beyond, and yet...we are not the masters of reality.

A natural disaster is a terrible and painful experience for those in its path. It is also a reminder to all of us of the two aspects of human life that are so difficult to reconcile: its preciousness and its frailty. A serious meditation on human life often arrives at a kind of stoic resignation or fatalism. It can even tempt us to bitterness or a hardened cynicism.

Photo of partial eclipse taken through dark glass, on our porch.
How do we hold together the preciousness and the frailty of life? On the one hand, there is so much beauty that draws us; so much that makes life worth living to the full. And yet nothing we attain seems to last. Everything passes away. "All is Vanity," the old wise man says (see Ecclesiastes 1:2). But this is not the whole truth about life, and by itself it only leads us to an irresolvable dissatisfaction and sadness. It does not explain our hope.

Indeed, the project of life is one in which we are always seeking goodness, beauty, truth, justice, love—in a word, happiness, and not just for a time, but a fulfilling and enduring happiness. We struggle to build relationships and an environment where the goodness and beauty—the happiness—we seek can be experienced and fostered. At the same time, precisely within our most passionate attention to reality, we discover the need to "let go"—not because we suddenly find ourselves falling into an abyss of nothingness, but because we are touched by the wonder at the heart of reality, and our need to be open to receive the gift beyond all our efforts and understanding.

During the moments of the eclipse, everyone experienced a wonder that was beyond our control. Everyone was fascinated, and for all our efforts to measure it and take pictures, we knew there was no way to capture its surprises. We felt like children again, receiving a gift in joy and wonder.

For those rendered homeless by the floods in Texas and Macao and—no doubt—other places that didn't make the news this past week, "letting go" feels very much like having the good and happy things of life wrenched away by an accidental and capricious violence. Here people encounter something "beyond their control" but it hardly seems fascinating. It seems, rather, to jar the trajectory of their existence off what they thought was a stable path. They grieve for losses that are all too real.

Grief is strange and arduous and incomprehensible. But it too touches every human life, and it affects each person in a unique way. There is no simple way to "resolve" it. It is a long and mysterious path of "letting go and opening up" that unfolds in its own time, that must be borne and lived and endured. We can accompany one another and help one another in grief through solidarity and compassion, and the works of mercy that flow from them.

And will we discover, in time, that even grief endures by the light of wonder beyond what has been lost, by the hope of finding it again more fully, by the stubbornness of the longing that remains and secretly grows within us?

Partial eclipse in Virginia, on our porch, reflected through the tree shadows (left) and observed through paper projection holes by Josefina (right)