Saturday, March 28, 2015

Flying Mayhem

A plane went down in the Alps. Pilot-driven into the mountainside. We struggle to understand what such things mean. I think we must say at the outset, the effort is too great for us. We cannot understand such things; but we try anyway. At some level we must try. So here are four thoughts in what scholars call a chiastic structure:
A. An abstract statement, which we dare not apply directly to the situation at hand.
B. A concrete reflection, which we must act on.
B1. A concrete reflection, which we must act on.
A1. An abstract statement, which is true, but not an excuse or a way around the situation as we experience it. 

A. An abstract truth. At some level such terrible events do not change the essential algebra of life. We live, and we die. Throughout our lives we learn how to die. All of life is, at one level, preparation for dying. All of us die. An early death does not make death more likely for any person. A terrible death does not make death more certain for any one of us. 

We have learned to avoid the reality that all of us will die. Rather, we learn to see life and death steadily, without either romance or despair. “I will encounter darkness as a bride and hug it in my arms.” So Claudio in Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. Claudio alternated between such high sentiments and an almost squalid effort to persuade his sister to do whatever would prevent his execution, even at the cost of her own honour. But the words express a worthwhile attitude towards life in this world. 

Now a simple application of this truth to the airline disaster trivializes the pain and heartbreak of the families who have experienced such incredible loss. It is a truth we need to internalize. It is not a word of comfort to those who experience loss. 

B. Job’s friends had the right idea when they first encounter their old friend in his distress. “When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.” 

They had the right idea! They went wrong when they started to try and make sense of what had happened. So with this disaster, we grieve with those who have suffered loss. The stories come out—singers on their way to a concert, students on their way home, a girl condemned to death because her host made an emergency run to get her passport. One after the other we read stories that make us weep. To grieve together is right. 

B1. Perhaps the hardest thought for me is to think of the co-pilot’s parents. I cannot imagine their struggle, their pain, as they process what has happened. I do not understand. I cannot make sense. I cannot even paint a picture in my mind of the space in which they find themselves.

If they were my friends, I would turn again to Job and seek only to weep with them and hold them and grieve together. Dust and Ashes. Covered with dust and ashes. Would we seek God? Job did. Perhaps we would. I don’t know. But first we would grieve, and grieve some more. 

A1. The thought of God introduces a perennial question for Western people like me. We wonder where God is in such events. We wonder if the event itself is not just another nail in the coffin of belief in God. 

So my final thought brings no comfort to those who are grieving, but it is basic to my own understanding of life and death. Those who think the airline disaster is just one more piece of evidence that there is no God do not see what their own outrage suggests. Why do we think that this tragedy is so terrible? If there is no God, if life is just the few moments out of all eternity that we spend here on this planet, what does it matter if the time ends sooner or later? What does it matter if I die peacefully or fearfully? 

My sense that this tragedy represents a great evil in our world only makes sense if there is something good and true, measured against which this tragedy is seen to be a tragedy. I need God—or at least a Good beyond this natural world—in order to see that what is here is bad. The analogy has been given: In order to see that a line is crooked (that the crash in the mountains is a tragedy), one must have a straight line with which to compare it (a real good beyond the tragedy). 

It’s an old line of reasoning, and all the better for being old. But it brings no comfort to the bereaved. When we experience such events, from the assassination of JFK to the destruction of the Twin Towers to the downing of a passenger plane in Ukraine—when we experience such events, all we can do is hold each other and weep and grieve together. 

As we weep we wait also for God to break in and show us something to give us hope. But for now we hurt, and we wait.

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