Engaging Voices: Reflections on Japan’s Terrible Tragedy

Editor’s Note:  “Engaging Voices” author Roger Gottlieb reflects on the spiritual implications of the tragedy unfolding in Japan.

Spirituality, Truth, and Kindness: Reflections on Japan’s Terrible Tragedy

What is there to say in the face of the thousands of dead, the images of a wall of water engulfing homes, cars, and whole towns, and the looming threat of nuclear meltdown? As millions lack enough food and water, and hundreds of thousands huddle in makeshift shelters, we look on in shared grief, sympathy, and horror. A prayer that Something or Someone will ease their pain, a hastily written check to a relief organization, and we can go back to our daily lives.

Or, perhaps, there could be a little more.

If we begin with a spiritual commitment to moral self-awareness that is as common for Catholics (“confession”) as for Jews (“tshuvah), for 12–steppers (“fearless self-inventory”) as Buddhists (“mindfulness”), let’s see what that could be.

Taking a spiritual imperative to honesty seriously I think many among us, myself included, must admit to the self-centered response of “Thank God it wasn’t my family or community that was hit.” If there is more joy in heaven over the one lost sheep that returns that all the ones that never strayed, there is also the guilty pleasure in not being the one who got slammed. This is a natural response. The fear and helplessness invoked by those terrible images, as powerful as they may be, refer to someone else: not to the vast majority of people who might read this. The human (and, as it turns out, mammalian) impulse to mirror the emotions of others, the hard-wired empathy we feel for the pains and joys we see, is muted by distance and relief.

And why shouldn’t we be relieved? Of course we love our family more than other families, our towns and nation more than theirs. As long as this doesn’t translate into immoral selfishness or militaristic aggression, it is proper that we should. There is an ethic of proximity at work, because the people closest to us are the ones we know best and the ones that we can care for the most effectively. If our hearts beat more deeply for them, if we are glad that the tsunami has hit somewhere else, we should forgive ourselves.

Japan’s sorrow also reminds us, in case we have forgotten, of the universality and inevitability of suffering. “The poor,” said Jesus, “we shall always have with us.” Take out “poor” and put in “suffering” and you get the basic Buddhist insight about the how life is painful; or Job’s brief and telling image: “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”

No matter how technologically sophisticated, well administered, or carefully engineered, we will still face the ravages that mark the vulnerability of the flesh. We will have earthquakes and tsunamis, stillbirths and Alzheimer’s, handicapped children, brain damaged adults, and the loneliness that comes from never finding a mate. Nothing in modern life has changed this. If we are better off in some ways—medicine, food production—we still have massive poverty, a rising childhood cancer rate, and an epidemic of depression. Even with the Internet, 500 cable TV channels, and really smart phones, there is more than enough unhappiness to go around.

Images of the perfect life, the totally safe community, the meticulously organized home-office-family-lifestyle are only images, not reality. Something will intrude, and there is nothing that nifty technology or the right purchase will do to change that. We need to accept the limitations of our lives as natural and inevitable, not things that only afflict us because we are weak, dumb, or cursed.

Finally, there is this. Yes we would prefer that it not happen to us,. And at the same time we know deep down that there is every good chance it will: if not an earthquake than an economic downturn, a falling house value, a child with serious problems, a spouse who decides to leave us for someone younger or richer, or a suddenly felt lump in the breast.

But…but…If so much of suffering is inevitable, can’t we at least lessen the amount we create for ourselves…and for others? Can’t we stop, or for God’s sake at least lessen, the casual cruelties and follies that mark so much of our daily lives? Individually, for instance, I know I sometimes manifest a kind of thoughtless arrogance that hurts other people’s feelings. In your case? Well, you probably know what you do. And if you don’t maybe you could take some time to find out.

Collectively, wouldn’t it be better if we could stop polluting ourselves into wildly escalating childhood cancer rates and an epidemic of asthma, and confront our compulsion to consume that is driving other species to extinction? Can’t we think about our addiction to oil, our hatred of people with different religion or politics, our colossal waste of food and water, and see if we can find a way to live more honestly, modestly, and compassionately?

If all of us are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, if suffering finds us all without us trying to find it, then shouldn’t we face the inevitable with courage and not—as individual, communities, nations—make things worse than they need to be?

Couldn’t we take the time, put in the effort, to be a little kinder to each other and all the other life forms with which we share the planet?

Roger Gottlieb’s new book Engaging Voices is currently featured in the Patheos Book Club here.

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