That’s The Way It Is

All too often newspaper commentary is banal, predictable and light on originality, so when I find a column that is none of those things I think it is worth some attention.  Investigative reporter and journalism teacher Max McCoy (whose picture looks remarkably like that of Star Trek’s Bones McCoy to me) has written such a column about the aftermath of the historic Joplin tornado.

Sistine Chapel, fresco Michelangelo,

Hand of God?, via Wikipedia

The topic McCoy raises is the perennial one raised about natural disasters, i.e., why?  Why did it happen, why here, why now, why me?  To question in this way is, in my opinion and as I have posted before, a function of self awareness, the persistent human meme that everything should have a meaning.  The more traumatic the event, the more we think it should have a meaning.  But, as McCoy says, “Very bad things sometimes happen.”  Walter Cronkite , “the most trusted man in America”, would have agreed by repeating his usual sign-off:  “That’s the way it is.”  Even the bible, that is, one part of it, agrees:

That you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  – Matthew 5:45

Natural disasters always bring out religious fervor and I was struck by the degree to which the tornado did that in Joplin.  The presentation held a week after the disaster and attended by all the leaders and politicians, from president Obama down to the Joplin city council, was more of a religious service than a town meeting, and as I recall, it was in fact called just that, a service.  It was a paean to the meme that the deity was somehow involved with the event.  Thanks were given for those who were spared, surely an appropriate expression for believers but, to me, and I suspect to McCoy, irrational in the context of Matthew 5:45.  Both Matthew and the tornado have the same message:  what happens on earth is a function of natural, random phenomena and purely human decisions.  No heavenly finger reaches down to guide a tornado’s path one way or another.  One hospital is ravaged, another spared.  One church demolished, others go untouched.

But I must say this about the upwelling of faith in the tornado’s wake.  Religion has brought the people of this bible-belt community together in an impressive way.  Our sense of community and unselfish actions has never been stronger and there is every reason to expect that to continue.  The disaster could have been viewed as a calamity too difficult to be dealt with, but instead, thanks to excellent leadership by officials and a broad upwelling of religious faith, it is seen as a challenge with a bright future.

Dinosaur

Image by shvmoz via Flickr

Religion is ubiquitous in human history, and likely well before any records were kept.  It makes people humble, it brings them together as one tribe.  It is a survival trait.  Little wonder then that the tendency to religious belief would be deeply embedded in our genes.  What is happening in Joplin is prime evidence of that.

Now if we could only expand our definition of “tribe” to include all of humanity and not just the disaster zone, humankind might have a chance of equaling the dinosaurs’ reign.  They lasted some 60 million years.  So far, Homo Sapiens has been around three tenths of one percent of that.  Kinda makes you feel humble, doesn’t it?

Thanks, Max McCoy, for putting things in rational perspective for us.

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
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21 Responses to That’s The Way It Is

  1. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim,

    In my view you interpreted the theme of the Sunday, May 29 Memorial service at least partically incorrectly. It was not particularly RELIIOUS in tone or substance but it was very SPIRITUAL. And to me there is a big difference. One follows doctrine, the other does not but leaves it up to individuals to seek “spiritual” guidance and support.

    Pastor Brown of St. Paul’s Methodist Church said it first in the Service. “God did NOT cause the tornado, nature did”. But he quickly added that the spiritual strength from a belief in God and the courage to follow His guidance will be the foundation upon which to rebuild. Governor Nixon said it even more clearly and President Obama followed that theme as well, again a spiritual theme, not a religious one.

    Now some, even many religious folks may feel that the tornado was in fact an act of God, for whatever reason. Usually such is with the view that God is punishing someone or some thing. NO ONE at the service said or imply such and in fact even men of the clothe repudiated such a view. God did not….., nature did.

    Going back to values, first principles of living, selflessness is providing aid to others, finding the strength and courage to perseve in face of a disaster were all included in the Service and that is exactly what people in Joplin have been doing, along with prayer for sure as well.

    Again Governor Nixon got it right, in my view. He said “God is now saying, Show Me, to the people of Joplin”. And he received thunderous applause with such words along with some “Amens” as well.

    Of course many people of strong religious faith find great comfort in that faith and are not to be disparaged in any way. And I am not saying that you disparage them. But there are many in Joplin that have no or little religious faith, doctrinal faith, and they too are digging deep into their own spirits and values to continue to do the next right thing in recovery.

    So combine religion with other sound values that are not religious or doctrinaire in nature or source and there you have the overall Spirit of Joplin.

    Joplin does indeed have the radically faithful, the “bible thumpers”, the “hard religious right”, or whatever you might call them. But Joplin goes beyond such bounds and has shown such time and again for now two weeks.

    To attribute that Spirit of Joplin to only doctrinaire religous beliefs diminishes the real greatness of Joplin, in my view. Our greatness is better than that.

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      If you will read my post carefully, Anson, I think you will see that I did not attribute the positive spirit of the people of Joplin exclusively to religion, but my purpose was to show religion’s strong effect. But you raise an interesting point. Unity of purpose and group cohesion can be achieved by other means, such as through rigorous military training for example (as you and I know very well). And I do not wish to diminish the real greatness of Joplin by not mentioning yet other means as well. Surely you know that.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Jim

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    • Rawhead says:

      “God did NOT cause the tornado, nature did”

      This implies that God has no control over nature, do you agree with that, Anson?

      Like

  2. ansonburlingame says:

    Absolutely, Rawhide, no control whatsoever.

    But what God or some power beyond ourselves CAN do is provide the SPIRITUAL strength, not necessarily religious conviction, to persevere in the face of any adversity.

    And Jim,

    I agree that you were not trying to “poke” at religious faith providing strength to some. My only point was I did not think you emphasized the “faith” (beyond doctrinaire religion) that has played a substantial role in Joplin’s Spirit so far. Was just trying to expand upon your thoughts by adding such views.

    Anson

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    • Rawhead says:

      “Absolutely, Rawhide, no control whatsoever.”

      Ahh ok, I was under the impression that God, being an omnipotent being and all, could do ANYTHING… including stopping a tornado from killing a bunch of his followers. Since that makes him look like a total jerk, I guess it’s better to believe that he has no control of nature in spite of Matthew 5:45, Psalm 107:25 and Isaiah 45:7.

      I agree that “religious” and “spiritual” are interchangeable. I refuse to believe that the citizens of Joplin, or any other people affected by a natural disaster would just fold up and die without some spiritual crutch. I think it just gives them temporary relief from picking up the pieces and moving forward.

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      • Jim Wheeler says:

        While I agree with your comments, Rawhead, I’m not sure how “temporary” the spiritual boost is. Spirituality, or religiosity is an enduring meme. Today, driving in Joplin, I saw painted on a damaged but operating car this message: “Joplin is the greatest city in America”. Although none of that conveys spirituality, it is hard for me to picture that passion deriving from reading the newspaper. 🙂

        Jim

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  3. Jim Wheeler says:

    Just for the record, and in answer to Anson’s comments, I consider the terms “religious” and “spiritual” to be equivalent and would have no problem with replacing “religion” with “spirituality” in this post. Please note that nowhere in the post did I specify any particular sect, or particular religion for that matter.

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    • ansonburlingame says:

      To Jim and Rawhide,

      Before reading Jennifer’s comments I make one final note to emphasize what Jim just said above.

      Spirituality or even religion should NEVER be a “crutch” to be cast aside after the injury (physical, mental or emotional) has healed. It MUST be a way of life used consistently and persitently, even in good times, in my view.
      Start with something like the “golden rule”. We should not just “turn it on” in adverstity and then return to our usual selfish ways “after the storm”. That just creates more storms.

      None of us are perfect or come even close to being so. But if we attempt to make progress in working towards such goals, then…..

      Anson

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  4. Jennifer Lockett says:

    I read recently that Americans are one of the few groups of people that seem to struggle with the notion that bad things can and do happen to those undeserving. Perhaps it’s because we, as a country and a people, have it relatively easy. We have not seen a lot of real suffering and horror here inflicted on others. We seem to believe that those who experience bad things must have somehow deserved them or that there was a greater cause. How often do we hear the cliché when someone experiences a painful loss that ‘everything happens for a reason.’
    The reality is that bad things happen, sometimes with cause but frequently due to chance. They do not always promote growth or spiritual depth and they not always should. In fact, I have seen many good people wracked with further guilt and suffering because they were unable to turn a tragedy into something positive instead of accepting the painful reality and moving forward.

    Like

    • Jennifer Lockett says:

      Just realized how incredibly bleak my response sounded. I’m not saying that people cannot have fulfilling and happy lives after a loss or a tragedy. I just resent the need we have to turn it into something ‘positive.’ It puts undue pressure on those who are already suffering if they cannot make the event into a positive experience.

      Like

      • Jim Wheeler says:

        I agree, Jen. In fact, one version of this always repels me and that is, “God never gives us a burden stronger than we can manage.”, or some variation of that. It is irrational and even strange because it implies not only that God intervenes in earthly affairs but that He is a real busybody and into every misfortune.

        In your previous comment, you said, “We seem to believe that those who experience bad things must have somehow deserved them or that there was a greater cause.”

        I haven’t encountered any modern evidence of blaming people who have bad luck, but such thinking was ubiquitous under Catholicism in Europe’s Middle Ages and under Protestantism in America’s original colonies. The Salem, Massachusetts witch trials come to mind. And I think you are correct about Americans being insulated from group suffering in other places around the world, that is if you are talking about the middle and upper classes. People displaced by Katrina and the Gulf oil spill might disagree. And judging by recent weather events, that might be changing – who knows?

        Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

        Jim

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  5. Jennifer Lockett says:

    Of course, being female, I’m more prone to think of female examples of ‘blame the victim.’ For example, rape victims are often put on trial and women are taught ‘rape prevention,’ and those who are brutalized are often questioned in terms of the way the dress, their demeanor, and their history. Rep Weiner and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent revelations see the public accusing/blaming their wives for their behavior, i.e. they must have known, they weren’t meeting ‘needs,’ etc. We blame the victims of domestic violence, “Why didn’t they just leave?”

    Other less gender biased issues, we blame those who get cancer and examine their lifestyle (even though there is no magical way that we will all live healthily and happily forever so long as we don’t smoke or drink and go jogging). We blame those who have hit financial hard times, claiming they are lazy or feel entitled.

    When I talk about American being insulated, not that bad things haven’t happened to us but, for example, we have not had a war on American soil in 150 years. We have no suffered from a plague or famine or deadly drought. We have not had generals practicing genocide on our people. We do not have severe slums like you see in Brazil, India, or parts of Africa. We have very little true poverty, in which children starve to death. In a lot of ways, we have it easy (but not to say that anyone’s pain or suffering is not legitimate).

    Like

    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I find your comments on the subject of blame valuable and incisive, Jennifer. Thank you. I am delighted to welcome you to our blog pages and hope you will stay with us. 😀

      Jim

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      • Jennifer Lockett says:

        Thank you for the gracious welcome. I’ve been enjoying your blog posts. 🙂

        Like

        • Jim Wheeler says:

          Great. I confess that part of my feelings are due to finally having a distaff member to keep us males honest. We haven’t had for a long time. If that responsibility weighs heavy on you . . . . . . excellent! 😀

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  6. ansonburlingame says:

    OK Jennifer,

    First, welcome to this heretofore all male exchange.

    I almost committed heresy of a sort long ago while making long submarine patrols during the Cold War. About 150 men would live together underwater for 70 days at a time totally out of touch with friends, family, etc. Our collective “job” was simple nuclear deterrence, staying “hidden” yet able to lauch a holocaust given 15 minutes warning or orders to do so.

    The wardroom was the area of the ship where officers ate and socialized during such patrols. The jokes quickly became very stale and tiring and the conversation was……
    I suggested that it would be great to have a couple of professional women in our group to change the topics and get different views. I was almost laughed out of the ship (that was 400 feet underwater). I made the comment in the early 70’s.

    Today, finally, women are now going to be introduced into some of the nuclear submarine force. 30 years plus and still waiting to “change the conversation”.

    What you, Jim, Rawhide and I have been touching upon herein is deep for sure and I cannot make a short comment to express my views. I will however attempt to do so in a blog which I will link herein for anyone interested.

    Anson Burlingame’
    Joplin, MO
    Captain, USN, Retired (Just to let you, Jennifer, know where I am coming from)

    Like

  7. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    In case you are interested, here is my blog on spirituality.

    http://ansonburlingame.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/the-spiritual-dimension

    Anson

    Like

  8. Jim,

    Thanks for addressing this phenomenon in a different way.

    Critics of religion, including myself, often underestimate the positive effects of religious belief, such as has been demonstrated here in Joplin (even though it is still difficult to calculate whether the negative effects of religious belief, over time, are greater than the positive effects).

    I do, however, find it difficult to take when someone thanks God for being spared, when his or her neighbor was not. I don’t know how to address such irrationality—and, really, when you think about it, a kind of unintended arrogance. After all, isn’t someone saying in effect, “The God of the universe thought I, and not my neighbor, was worthy to save.”

    For now, I just ignore such things, as this is not the time to debate theology with folks who have been traumatized by nature.

    Duane

    Like

    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Good points, Duane. I agree.

      Like

    • Rawhead says:

      Until a hypothetical city full of atheists is decimated by a tornado, we won’t have any reference frame for how they would handle the situation without religion. Would they come together to achieve a common goal absent a shared imaginary friend in the sky?

      You’re right on with the last two paragraphs.

      Like

  9. ansonburlingame says:

    Rawhide,

    Atheists would have no ‘friend in the sky” but they are still human and I would expect the “good” ones to bond just as Joplin has bonded,

    Anson

    Like

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