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Disasters drive home basic truths

By Michael M. Bates
web posted October 3, 2005

We humans sometimes lull ourselves into believing we run the world. We explore outer space, delve deeply into the mysteries of life, and build smaller and better MP3 players. In general, we live lives undreamed of even fifty years ago. Yep, we've come a long way, baby.

Then a tsunami or Katrina or another disaster happens. They are forceful reminders of how impotent mere humans are in the face of Nature. Not totally powerless of course. Scientific progress permits us to determine in advance how severe many natural disasters will be. When they will hit can often be pinpointed. Warnings can be issued. People can take precautions.

Even so, many individuals still die and many homes and businesses still are destroyed. Victims' lives are devastated and perhaps changed forever. These events, as awful as they are, can have at least one positive consequence. They can draw attention to some important truths.

One is the innate compassion of so many humans. Rescue workers, military assistance units, volunteers, and people from around the world voluntarily trying to help renew our confidence in civilization. The outpouring of generosity is remarkable. Assistance from other countries, including nations not normally regarded as friendly, was recently offered to the U.S.

Another reality is that we can't expect the government, at any level, to protect us or our families. That responsibility must remain primarily our own. In this post-9/11 society, where citizens increasingly think there should be a phone number they can call to resolve problems, that may not be so easy to swallow. Bureaucracies are intrinsically sluggish. The larger the bureaucracy, the slower it is to respond.

Natural disasters draw attention to exactly how fragile human existences truly are. In just a matter of hours or even minutes, people have their worlds turned inside out, never to be the same again. A month ago, how many New Orleans residents thought they would ever have to flee their homes for Texas or New York or Illinois? And end up there with few, if any, possessions?

When catastrophes take place, we realize how so many of the material things we think are important really aren't. The stuff we accumulate over the years may bring temporary contentment, perhaps even delight. In the final analysis it's still just stuff.

There are genuinely significant things in life, things that can't be bought or replaced. At the time of his brother's death, Justice Clarence Thomas movingly spoke of what he described as the three F's: faith, family and friends.

These and our principles are what truly count, he said. His brother's passing caused the Justice to reevaluate his own life:

"And as I stood there at the funeral parlor, having taken a week away from work, work became meaningless," he said. "Being on the Supreme Court was meaningless."

"I sat there and looked at the lifeless body of my brother, the body without the spirit. I tried to make sense of it."

"What it did was it put my life in perspective about what's important. What's the purpose? Is it important to be popular? Is it important to have agreement, to have unanimity? Or is it more important to be principled?"

Faith gives those who suffer hope. It places in perspective what matters most. It imbues in mere mortals a most wondrous attribute. Resilience. Bad things are always going to happen. Faith that we can make things better allows people to keep pressing on while setting aside despair.

Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This essay appeared in the September 29, 2005 Oak Lawn (IL) Reporter.

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