Sometimes — make that usually — the range of rational reactions to life on this planet seems dismally narrow, beginning with bafflement, passing through exasperation and rage, and ending in sorrow. We may distract or console ourselves with the doings of babies and small animals, the pleasures of music or books or sports or nature, and the contemplation of such acts of human kindness or heroism as the media bother to mention. But always, beyond the tiny zone of happiness that each of us works so hard to make and keep, there looms a nightmarish world in which somewhere, every minute of every day, somebody else’s life is going up in flames — conflagrations that are ignited, moreover, mostly by other human beings. So-called acts of God (strange that we reserve the term for disasters) are few and far between, compared to the disastrous acts of man.
Just last week, in a story that captured this sense of disjunction perfectly, a Japan Times columnist wrote about the unexpectedly sobering “hanami” party he had attended the night before. One guest, who knew the terrain of northern Macedonia well, confessed that he felt unable to enter into the spirit of the occasion because he was thinking about the Kosovar refugees huddled in those freezing, inhospitable hills.
Despite the damper he threw on the party, the man was surely right. Sometimes grief compounded by anger is not just the rational but the only possible response to such horrors, especially when nerves are sensitized, like his, by firsthand knowledge. It may not be a prelude to action, since there is usually no opportunity to help even if one had the slightest idea how to, but it is indispensable to the haphazard daily effort most of us make to judge fairly and act decently in our own lives. A capacity to feel for others is a sine qua non of even the most rudimentary morality.
Still, those initial, instinctive emotions are just a beginning. The next step in understanding all such man-made calamities (Kosovo today, who-knows-where tomorrow) is to sort out the emotions’ proper objects. Grief is easy: It is reserved for the innocent dead, injured, sick, hungry and homeless on all sides. Anger is much harder. Depending on the authority, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and U.S. President Bill Clinton are equally to be reviled as murderous warmongers and equally accountable for the refugees’ appalling plight. It is essential to keep trying to tease out the truth, to insist on distinctions, to hope for justice. Vague feelings of horrified sympathy should precede, not displace, the quest for accurate information. We are not even close to knowing what constitutes feasible policy, let alone justice, in the Balkans — there seem to be as many views as there are people willing to express them, and those change almost weekly, as the tide of war shifts. Hindsight has always spawned experts. But the obligation remains to at least look for a perspective that makes sense of what is happening there — as also in Northern Ireland, Central Africa, Indonesia, Iraq, the Middle East and all the other current flash points of misery on this perennially miserable globe.
That is our responsibility as citizens of the planet. Our responsibility to ourselves, which arguably includes making an effort to be happy, may be better served by getting the planet itself in perspective, along with everything that is going awry on its surface. Religion serves this purpose for some; for others, it is a contributing cause of half the world’s troubles. More useful, perhaps, is the perspective of the astronaut, who must feel a certain relief when he (or she) looks back at the receding Earth and sees “. . . all he has sprung from,” as Northern Ireland’s Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney puts it, “The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O.” It appears lucent, of course, because it is seen from a great distance. Up close, as Heaney has good reason to know, life on this planet can seem little better than a “door into the dark.”
There is comfort, too, in the reversed perspective of the astronomer, who, though earthbound, turns his aloof gaze resolutely outward. The infinite spaces that terrified a French philosopher 350 years ago now fill us — or should do — with awe, humility and a kind of minimalist serenity. Modern astronomers can reportedly peer back in time far enough to see the faint light of baby galaxies forming a scant billion years after the Big Bang. There is no answer to human misery out there in the teeming silence at the edges of the universe. Still, when the effort to make sense of senseless things on Earth seems overwhelming, it is oddly reassuring to contemplate that enormous, ceaseless indifference. It somehow helps to know that in the end it will swallow and silence us all.
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