31 October 2012


The terrible storm has passed and the damage is extensive. Millions are without power, and it may take several days before it is restored. In our part of the city things are fine, while nearby areas have severe problems. It is just a reminder of how much life can often boil down to chance, luck, providence, or whatever you want to call it, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time when disaster strikes. A tree falls and kills people who happen to be in a particular spot at the wrong time. Conversely those more fortunate have been at the right place at the right time, but given the way things actually unfold, they should approach this life with humility. For in truth, much of what happens is beyond our control. 

Natural disasters of this magnitude are unusual in New York; our disasters are usually more of the man-made kind. That makes the site of the streets in downtown Manhattan flooding and an actual river of water flowing through the tunnels all the more incredible. We’ve never seen anything like this before. It has been nearly two hundred years since something comparable happened. We have only been settled where we are for a few hundred years, and most places in this country far less. Thus our longer term experience is very limited. People who sometimes view us critically in places like Europe just don’t realize the extent to which the forces of nature are so much more powerful in America. The temperatures are far more extreme, as is the weather, with hurricanes, tornados, flooding, wildfires, etc. happening frequently. Some places are unusually wet while other places are extremely dry. For there is still a wildness here. In some parts of the country predatory animals still roam, while other wild animals are frequent visitors, even in urban or suburban areas. You can get as close to nature as you want, although up close we often find it less than idyllic. 

The notion that we are masters of this planet is laughable, given how powerless we are before the forces of nature. For all the impact we think we have had on the planet it is miniscule alongside of what occurs naturally. When people abandon spaces it is striking how quickly nature takes over again. The unexpected often happens. In the days leading up to this storm we knew it was coming, but prior to that no one could have foreseen it. All predictions of any kind are only viable for a very short term. Beyond that the future is unknowable. 

We often lament our misfortunes, while forgetting all the times we were lucky enough to avoid the worst. Life by and large has been good enough to instill a sense of comfort, to the point where many of have forgotten the phrase “count your blessings.”  Bad things happen to someone else, somewhere else. Some have even come to believe that they are entitled to be happy all the time, forgetting that life often consists of misery, suffering, and pain. Our ancestors knew this because they lived during times when life was a daily struggle for existence.  They were thankful if they simply managed to get through a day no worse off than before. In modern times we usually have modern problems, which are trivial alongside the havoc the forces of nature can cause. It takes a storm like this to remind us how insignificant we really are in the face of natural forces, which instill in us a sense of stunning awe, and if we are wise, humility. 

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