Weeds: Hard to make sense of tragedies
In the center of the campus at St. John’s University is the stately, old Quadrangle. It is four buildings connected in a traditional monastic arrangement. The Quad at St. John’s is five stories tall and dates back to the 19th century. It almost killed me.
I was a senior there in late winter, walking on the sidewalk next to the Quad. I heard this loud screeching, scraping sound and turned to see a giant chunk of ice crash to the ground where I had been a half second before. Oh my. I was briefly shook up, but then realized I had a good story to tell.
Speaking of things smashing to the Earth, in February a 60 foot meteor travelling at 42,000 miles an hour detonated over Chelyabinsk, Russia. There was lots of damage to the city caused by the explosion. There was no warning, and it was a reminder that in the whole of time, such events have occurred repeatedly to our planet.
Shortly after the Russian meteor, a sinkhole swallowed part of a home in Florida, apparently killing a man who was in his bedroom. The hole was so deep, and the area surrounding it so precarious, that the home was demolished and the body never recovered.
Somewhere in the total and utter randomness of these events, I had in mind that humor could be found. I began to concoct a tongue-in-cheek piece about living in fear of being struck by an object from the firmament. I was going to suggest wearing a helmet whenever you are out. But while your eyes are peeled to the sky, you might get sucked into the ground by a sinkhole. A constant state of abject dread might be called for.
Then in the course of few days, three innocents were killed who happened to be near backpacks laid down on a street in Boston. Fifteen were killed in an explosion in West, Texas. An earthquake in Lushan, China took the lives of 168. That’s 186 people who woke that morning with plans for their day. They had plans for that day and into the future, just like you and I do right now.
I can be tactless with the best of them. But the comic possibilities seemed to drain out of my concept. That’s not to say humor has no place in the realm of tragedy. On my worst days, I’ve had ridiculous thoughts about the irony or just plain weirdness of a situation. Sometimes that can help get one through an awful moment.
We know that we will suffer loss and heartache. Some of it is semi-predictable. Aging, risky behaviors, taking chances make tragedies a little more understandable. But when a life ends just because someone stood near a backpack? Well, we might as well be hit by a meteor or swallowed by a sinkhole as much sense as that makes.
We accept that there is risk in our lives. We have steps in our house, even though level ground is safer. We even climb ladders. Each day we engage in an activity that kills over a hundred Americans: we get in cars. Encapsuled in two tons of metal, we hurtle 60 miles an hour with other hunks of metal speeding the opposite direction two feet away. We know these risks.
But we shake our heads when a tree falls on someone or lightning hits someone. It is impossible to make sense of these. We try. We spend our time here on Earth dealing with cause and effect. We know that this cause leads to that effect. And if we do too much of this, it could be lead to too much of that. But these random accidents don’t fit any cause or effect that is visible to our eyes.
We are not alone; humans have grappled with this since the first cave collapse. Jesus dealt with such incomprehensible tragedy in his time. In Luke 13, he talks about an accident, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”
In 1927 Thornton Wilder published the novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It begins with this line: “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk, witnesses that. The novel is about his attempt to make sense of the death of the five victims who shared nothing except being on a bridge at a moment in time.
Juniper spends years interviewing everyone he can find with a connection to the five victims. He builds the story of each of their lives leading up to crossing that bridge. He considers each of their traits and tries to create a formula that gives reason to their fate. He fails, and is himself killed in the end. But you can imagine a Brother Juniper searching for meaning in the Boston bombings.
We talk about God’s plan. When we do, we know that we don’t or can’t understand that “plan” at all. We are like little children who haven’t learned to read paging through a dictionary. We can see someone created it, but the meaning is beyond us. Thornton Wilder ends The Bridge of San Luis Rey with this line: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” Maybe that’s the best we can do.