A Meditation on the Earthquake in Japan

Life is brief.  In geological or cosmic terms we are not even sparks that flash across the face of night.  All that is human is limited and partial and incomplete – human perfection is a moment later dust and ashes.

But it is all we have.  It is all we are.

Sitting here all night watching the destruction in Japan unfold, the earthquake and tsunamis, human fragility is all too apparent.  Buildings, cars, airports, oil refineries – people and the works of humans – gone, in the blink of an eye.  We do not know how many are dead, how many have lost their loved ones.  But I know one thing with certainty: Each of those people had dreams and hopes, plans; each did love and cherish someone and something.  Each had hope.  And now it is all broken and gone.

Not even a spark across the face of night.

The universe, inasmuch as the universe is anything like what science understands it to be, does not care for us.  It is cold and austere, beautiful and eternally aloof from us.  My life and my death are of no importance to a star or a galaxy or to the emptiness of space.  Nor does the Earth that bears us care, stupid as it is, nor the ocean, nor flames:  For them, we are objects in a vast collection of objects; when we leave, we are easily replaced by another object in the working out of things.  Whether the cosmos is ordered or disordered, I do not know, nor will I ever know.  But I do know that physical reality has no use for meaning, or questions, or wonder, or love, dreams, hopes.

All of that is the furniture of the human universe, not of the mindless processes known to science.

Physical processes know nothing of care.  Physical processes lose not a moment over questions of knowing or not knowing.  They simply are and do; they do not care either for themselves or us, and they have no use for purpose.

But we care.  It is all we are and all we have.

Life is brief and it only has meaning for us.  Reality militates to remove us at all hours and, eventually, it removes us all.  One day, it will remove the entire human race and every trace we ever existed.

But that does not mean each of us does not matter or that each of our lives is not meaningful and full of value – for the universe is as infinite and full of processes as we care to look, yet not one of them has value till we decide to value it.  Each of us, as finite as we are, is valuable without measure, meaningful, called out to be meaningful and full of care for one another and our human universe. 

Without us, reality has no reason for being.

I am watching the world thrown into crisis – the world is a perpetual crisis; I am watching as untold people are destroyed on these strange windows on the world we have made called television and the internet.  All I can think of is how much those people and their plans must have meant, now gone, over, removed from the stage.  And then I am angered: Not at the universe – it is a dead process unrolling mindlessly; not at God – He made us capable of care and of recognizing our own value; but at humans.  Not the humans whose lives are over now, but at vicious humans, who, like a pack of rabid wolves, band together to destroy their fellows with war and with injustices of all sorts, who make life harder than it would be on its own.

Jesus is reported to have said, “The poor you will always have with you”; I imagine the reason He said this was because we will always be plagued with miserly hoarders of wealth, the cruelly strong who seize what they desire by guns and misuse of law and influence.  The hateful and the careless we will always have with us, people who look at the merciless processes of nature and decide to form their lives in an imitation of it: If nature is merciless, they will be, too.  They take what they want, they refuse to cooperate and recognize the infinite value of their brothers and sisters.  All human things are reduced to numbers and weights; a human life is balanced against a gold coin and always found wanting.

Yet life is brief.  Our time is finite.  Our hopes and dreams, our loves, our cares cannot be safely delayed for another day.  Death is already at the door, and then we are done, even though we will not be finished.  There is not enough time to play the slave or indentured servant in another man or woman’s autobiography; and they, too, miss their destiny and proper place by pretending to be our masters.

People, our time is less than the flash of a spark across the face of night.

We are what and who we spend that time being.

Make your choices wisely, while you can.


Richard Van Ingram

11 March 2011

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Richard VanIngram 5 years ago from San Antonio, Texas Author

Thank you, Joseph. I agree. The speed of our present lives in the West and globally tends to be numbing, like watching scenes pass by outside the windows of a fast train: The scenery keeps changing and we allow ourselves to become rootless; we have no internal place from which to integrate the scenes and judge them aright or value the people involved in them. It is easy to mistake human value and existence with the valuelessness of the universe as seen through the filtering lens of science, use useful and important as science is. We lose the sense of wonder and imagination which is the core of human being -- it is a short step from such a loss to the erosion of even our drive and ability to reason scientifically.

It is easy to forget that science and technology are high accomplishments of human culture and the loss of care for human being will cause a decline in them as much as a depression in ethics or art or theological reasoning or political thought; and I think we see this already.

Our culture has not caught up with the speed of our technology, and technology has been developed ad hoc without mindfulness for what it is required to be human.

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Joseph Tages 5 years ago

It seems as if this kind of thing happens ever more often. Last year it was Haiti, then Chile, and several other countries. This is what I fear the most: As our attention span grows shorter, our level of tolerance for the unexpected expands further. We are so in tune with the world around us nowadays that historic events unfold before our eyes with the speed of a trending topic on Twitter. There's hardly time to react to something like what transpires in Japan, let alone grieve, before we move on to something else. Even as I write, the Japanese prepare for a new Chernobyl. As communication technology advances further, we must not neglect our individual need for experiencing emotions, whether they be positive or negative. Otherwise, life itself will become nothing more than a series of continuing sound bites.

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