091 - On The Utility In Catastrophe - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Many rail against the dark turn our media has taken. It seems they delight in arousing our anger and our emotions. They monetize our fear by keeping us hooked to our screens. I tell you that rather than cursing the media, the modern philosopher should be giving them thanks. We shall thank them for these daily reminders of our frailty as humans in an unforgiving world.
If we kept a statistician by our side, we would know to walk more carefully under the branches of the trees in our neighborhood than we would think to duck our heads in worry about space debris from a Chinese rocket falling to earth. If we were as facile with numbers as we are comfortable conjuring images in our heads, we would more eagerly step into an airplane than we would hop in our cars for the drive to work each morning. But things that fall from the sky are so much more interesting! We cannot look away, and so they capture our imagination and make hostages of our reason.
But for just a moment, my dear Deuteros, let us welcome the media whipping our irrationality to new heights. A shark has mistaken a surfer for a seal and taken a bite? Delightful! A lightning bolt has determined that the shortest route to ground lies through a hiker’s head? Fascinating! A person has found a novel way to misuse a product and so slices, eviscerates, or defenestrates themselves? Most excellent!
Now it is not my aim to mock misfortune or tragedy, for though rare these instances are very real, not least to their chomped, electrified, and impaled victims. I take no delight in the suffering of others. “So why,” you ask, “did you just say we should welcome the news of these events?” The explanation is this. People fall too readily into the habit of taking their lives for granted and this in turn leads them away from living their lives meaningfully and well. If the misfortune of others serves to jolt us from our sleepwalking, then each of these dark clouds does indeed hold a silver lining.
The scope of human suffering is broad and we need not limit our contemplation to these instances of isolated injury. The COVID pandemic is a powerful reminder that we are surrounded by pathogens, and that sometimes the things we don’t think about are wreaking unseen harm before they burst into view. An earthquake triggers a tsunami that floods a thousand miles of coastline, dragging hundreds of thousands to their debris-choked watery deaths. This happened more than once in history and it could happen again. Giant volcanoes lie dormant until, one day, they don’t. The earth, the seas, even the air, all contain the seeds of our destruction, for all that we could not live without them.
None of us is safe from the fate that awaits all people. No matter the fortress we erect to keep out all risks, danger lurks within. A twisted ankle on a flight of stairs, a lumpy bit of bread choking off air in a tight passage, or a tiny clot ending up wedged in the wrong vein, and the end is near to us all.
I guarantee you are up to the task of merely meeting your death. Untold billions before you have done so, of every temperament and ability. Do you think you will somehow fail to succumb when the time comes? Have no worries on that account. Your gift in being forewarned is as follows: to be reminded of our ultimate fate is to be given the chance to become master of it. Not to prevent the outcome, for that is not the province of any person, but to be ready for it.
What then? Do you complain that life is unfair? That some have long lives and others are cut down in their prime? Better you learn to live meaningfully for the shortest of times than you live a long and unknowing life. The relative lives of people are all so tiny on the grand scope of things that to worry about a year, a decade, or even a century is to miss the forest for the trees. Even the mountains are ground down by the passage of time. Nothing made of matter will endure forever. Will you reduce your existence to one of suffering because of fears that one day your suffering will end?
Your salvation lies in acceptance of the inevitable. When you accept that you will have an end, note that you are not hastening to a premature end. Nor do you need to welcome a thing to be unfazed by its appearance. Though you cannot control what nature has in store for you, you can control what you think of it. And this you accomplish by thinking about it.
As you contemplate, do not listen to what foolish people say about what things are worth. Though many listen to the incessant noise, few hear or take away the right tune. The media will give you their daily reminders without fail, but you must never forget they are not trying to help you. Though they try to lead you astray by telling you to worry, you will have no problem to dismiss their false fear-mongering and take away the true lesson. The recitation of tragedy makes you stronger, not weaker, when it falls on ears attuned to reason.