“Why?” is a many-faceted word when it comes to disasters. Science can tell us the physical reasons why the tsunami hit South and Southeast Asia, but people in the area (and elsewhere) also want answers to broader questions: Why us? Why here? Why now?
These are queries in an article by Kenneth Wordward in the January 10 issue of Newsweek: “Countless Souls Cry Out to God.” The article describes how survivors of four faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, are variously conceiving the metaphysical meaning of the tsunami cataclysm.
The Hindu inhabitants of poor fishing communities don’t have sophisticated theological views. They believe that life is controlled by capricious deities who have the power to destroy as well as to create. So it is important to propitiate the deity, who usually is female, and cool her anger.
Buddhists in the area also have weather gods who both can be blamed and propitiated, but karma is the overriding explanation for the tsunami. A scholar is quoted: “Buddhists will look to the idea of karma and ask what they did, individually or collectively, that a tragedy like this happened.”
Muslims consider that all natural laws are part of God’s will. Since Allah is the essence of mercy and compassion, even a tsunami that kills over 150,000 people has some hidden, positive purpose. Perhaps God is testing a person’s faith by taking away a child or a spouse. If belief remains strong, a Muslim presumably has passed this divine test.
Christians look to Jesus’ suffering on the cross for inspiration in coping with their own pain and despair. “If Jesus could endure, then so can I.” Yet the notion of a God of love is difficult to reconcile with the deaths of so many innocents. Job was tested to the extreme, but why would it be necessary for God to put an entire region of the world through tortures?
The article concludes with, “The miracle, if there is one, may be that so many still believe.” Nicely said.
For none of the explanations offered up by the four religions is very satisfying. To my mind the Buddhists have the edge, since karma theory really is nothing more than the scientific idea of cause and effect applied over more than one lifetime.
A believer in karma will consider that those affected by the tsunami are reaping the effects of actions committed in previous incarnations. So even though the ocean may seem to have meted out life and death arbitrarily, on a deeper level destiny was in control of who lived and who died, who needed rescuing and who became a rescuer.
Still, I don’t know if karma is true. In the past my belief in karma has helped me get through some difficult times, such as a car accident on the Santiam Pass where I walked away unscratched and a woman in the other car was killed. The accident wasn’t my fault, but I was one of the drivers. Why her and not me? Further, the accident wouldn’t have happened at all but for some amazingly precise timing and positioning of the two vehicles. Was this accident truly accidental, or were the five of us involved in it brought together by some unseen hand of providence?
I have no idea. I used to think that I did. But now I’m willing to admit my ignorance about the answer to the hidden “why?” that may or may not underly the obvious “why?” (ice on the road’s shoulder; rear-wheel drive; loss of traction by one tire that led to my car lunging into the other lane).
I understand the desire of religious believers to make things that happen in their lives—especially the dramatically “good” and “bad” things—part of a greater spiritual design. I’ve done this myself, a lot. I’ve found comfort in believing either that a benevolent higher power was guiding the course of my life, or (less comfortably) that whatever I’m getting I deserve, because I’ve penned destiny’s invitation in my own hand.
More and more, though, I’m inclined to just take events at their face value. The tsunami occurred because of an earthquake. People died because they lived near the ocean. Why make life more complicated or mysterious than it already is? At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld: what we know we know, and what we don’t know we don’t know; if we think we know what we don’t know, we know less than we would if we simply don’t know.
(Actually, Socrates expressed ideas like that way before Rumsfeld, and I prefer to associate my not-knowing with a true philosopher rather than a Defense Department poseur.)
If we want comfort, I believe there is much comfort in simply accepting reality as it is. Not as we imagine it to be, or as we wish it would be, but just as it is. If what happens comes from God—great. We have accepted God’s will. If what happens comes from some other source, such as the mechanical workings of nature or man’s free will, then this also is great. We have accepted what is, regardless of how it came to be.
Whether we live just this life or many lives, life is too precious to be denied. To deny any part of life that is real is to rob ourselves of something that will never come our way again. This includes the good as well as the bad.
Eyes wide open is how I aspire to live. Seeing what is real, not seeing what isn’t. Pretty simple to say. Very hard to do.