Catastrophe: Where does it come from? What can be done?

· Logos/Ethos

April, 2020         

I’m writing this a week before publication. I’m not privy to the totality of facts that you now hold on the pandemic that is altering our lives. I’m going to write the column anyway because it’s not the facts of the catastrophe that interest me. It’s what we continue to learn about the human condition, the accident of our appearance on this rock, and the cause of our inevitable disappearance from it.


I remember the exact day I discovered the quotation I’m about to share with you. It was a gray late winter day six years ago. My wife Betsy and I thought it would be a good idea to raise our spirits with some shopping. Betsy had been suffering for two months from unrelenting stomach pains that several doctors were unable to diagnose. What we didn’t know was that it would take them several more months to attach a name to the pain. By then it was too late.


Betsy shopped in her favorite women’s clothing store in Orleans and I in my favorite bookstore across the street. Finishing first, I sat in the car and began skimming through my purchase: “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler. The quote sprang from the page and grabbed me by the throat. Perhaps it was because of the unspoken fear we had been living with. Or because it expressed my own innate, unchosen theology:


“Nothing except luck protects us from catastrophe. Not love. Not money. Not faith. Not a pure heart or good deeds… We can, any of us, be laid low, cut down, diminished, destroyed.”


Not a radical idea. Most of us are at least vaguely aware how much fortune affects our human experience. But I shivered that day to see it written so pitilessly. Nothing but luck protects us from catastrophe.


I suppose I had been preparing for a moment like that for many years. Having finally escaped the folly of faith in a beneficent, intervenient deity, I had arrived at a place I can describe only as a mélange of stoicism, determinism, and existentialism. The universe spins at a breakneck pace and from time to time a random piece of dung is fired in our general direction. It might strike now; it may later; it may never. 


I never think that we are blessed, for that would require a blesser. For there to be a blesser, a giver, there would also have to be a destroyer, a malevolent force that withholds human happiness. For there are millions of us who are clearly denied happiness. The injustice and brutality of that perverted denier is beyond my imagination. Instead, we will be laid low, cut down and diminished by our DNA which was formed long before our character, or by a single corrosive cell whose aimless appearance and cruel efficiency is superior to centuries of accumulated scientific knowledge, or because we came by happenstance or ignorance to occupy the same space as a speeding train or gun-wielding madman. That a benign and potent blesser would purposefully arrange for these events is too absurd for consideration. No, it’s all luck.


And so here we are, living amidst a pandemic. Nothing is as it was. Even our most trusted human instinct, when things go badly draw close to those you love, is no longer considered wisdom.


What is required of us now? We must be able to discriminate and follow the advice of intelligent, experienced people, not those who are seeking personal advantage or advancing a political or economic ideology. We ought to emulate those among us whose social instincts have a strong moral foundation and are not paralyzed by fear. That would exclude our neighbors who are currently hoarding toilet paper and stockpiling firearms.


Put simply and without much originality, now is the time to emulate the Victorian stoicism that helped preserve our courageous allies in London, 1940: Keep Calm and Carry On.