WHEN TRAGEDY HAPPENS
There are miners in West Virginia trapped two hundred and sixty feet below the surface of the earth at the time of this writing. They have not been heard from for twenty-four hours. They are living, if they are alive, on a mixture of gases plus oxygen that is only minimally life-supporting. And they are struggling to stay alive as their distraught families watch and wait. This kind of incident is one that is repeated many times over on a daily basis, worldwide, as unexpected catastrophes happen to people, not of their own doing, but through some combination of natural developments within the earth and human technological failure or negligence. What is the meaning of such events and what can we learn from them?
In the first place, the impact on the families of those who are buried beneath the earth is tremendous. Though one plans for misfortune and knows that it is a possibility, it is never real until it becomes real. The prospect of losing a loved one is a searing pain of unimaginable proportions when it happens all of a sudden, and when those who stand by and watch are left with feelings of total helplessness.
Secondly, the consciousness and conscience of a nation gets stirred when there is a possibility that human error and/or negligence has contributed to the disaster in any way, whether it be the collapse of buildings due to an earthquake, or inadequate ventilation in mine shafts, or lack of structural support for floors that cave in, or any one of a number of structural errors that are part of human inefficiency or neglect. The world watches and it waits when such things occur, feeling the helplessness of those who are most intimately caught up in the drama, wanting to blame someone but not knowing who to blame.
The teaching in this, if it were to be received by those who are awake and conscious, would be to understand the preciousness of life, both the lives of those that are cut short by sudden catastrophe and the preciousness of one’s own life. This perception underlies the idea that life cannot be taken for granted, that it is both fragile and sacred and one can never know how and under what circumstances things will come to pass so that what was not foreseen, suddenly becomes a reality.
Third, the learning exists if one is open to it, that the amount of suffering that occurs for others is very great, and there is an intuitive perception on a comparative level between whatever issues or problems are being faced in one’s own life and the tragedies that occur to others. Often, those who feel that their worries and difficulties are very large, find solace in the fact that there are those who, for a period of time, are suffering more intensely and with greater loss than oneself. This shift in perspectives is in itself healing. For it allows one to bear suffering with grace, and to not feel that one’s personal circumstances are the worst that could possibly be.
Finally, there is the possibility for compassion – the compassion that extends rays of love out of the heart toward others whom one can feel empathy for. This compassion needs to exist at all times, but especially at times of pronounced suffering for those who are the victims of a catastrophe or disaster, whether natural or man-made.
That there are aspects of learning present in such situations does not mean, on a spiritual level, that the events in question were caused by or originate in a desire to produce such learning, but rather that within any set of circumstances it is possible to extract something in the way of meaning and experience that is forward-moving and that brings the self into both greater wholeness and greater love. This is especially true and especially needed today in relation to the ‘taking of life’ and the ‘taking of life for granted’. Where people are willing to sacrifice the lives of others in a war-time setting because ‘it is just what war does’, and where they are not accountable for the massive loss to life that disrupts families, creates despair, and severely jeopardizes the functioning of a people – all of which are taking place in Iraq today - such lack of accountability is an example of ‘taking life for granted’ that needs to be redressed and will be redressed, for it is not in keeping with holding life as sacred or of valuing others.
Identification with the misfortunes of others does not need to involve an inability to go on, despair, or anger that becomes a symptom in its own right of the need for healing. In relation to misfortune that occurs on a large scale, there is always the desire to turn to anger to seek redress for what happened and to find a specific cause that can be blamed. However, much occurs within human experience that does not warrant anger and for which anger has no place because there is no specific cause other than the human condition itself. For these events, and the misfortunes of the world are filled with them, the important thing is to be able to bear helplessness in the embrace of trust, knowing that what has happened will be survivable for the survivors, and that what has happened will somehow be held in God and with God for those who have suffered or been lost.
In the bombing of Oklahoma City and in other places where there have been large scale catastrophes that affected many people, there were families and individuals that never forgave Timothy McVeigh for a crime that cost so many so much. But there were also those who forgave, even while they carried great sorrow in their hearts, some, for the rest of their lives. The attraction to anger in response to catastrophe is understandable, since it creates a sense of empowerment and a feeling of being able to ‘do something’. But the solution of forgiveness and of being willing to bear what has to be borne with God is a much better solution, since it leads to the progressive healing of the heart and the soul which ultimately will learn from bearing its own pain in this way.
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News from Jan. 3, 2005:
U.S. Air Strike Kills Iraqi Family of 12
Desperate Search for Missing Miners Continues
Efforts Sped Up to Rescue Trapped Miners
4 missing in German skating rink wreckage