Last week, five people on the staff of our local newspaper were killed by a gunman who attacked their office because he had a long-standing grudge against the paper. (It's worth noting that the paper did not skip putting out a single issue.) Naturally, the rector of our church preached on the incident. He drew upon Psalm 30, which includes the beautiful verse, "Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning." To reach that epiphany, however, the psalmist has to recall a time when he felt confident in his security but then experienced the apparent loss of that safety and protection. Our rector talked about how we might have existed in a "bubble," thinking we were safe from such unpredictable mass violence, that it would never strike where we live. Now the bubble has been burst.
That reflection reminded me of what the media repeatedly told us after 9-11: "Everything has changed." Then and now, that remark brings to mind an essay by one of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, "On Living in an Atomic Age" (collected in the posthumous volume PRESENT CONCERNS). Lewis reminds us that such catastrophic events change nothing objectively. What has changed is our perception. That idea of safety was always an illusion. To the question, "How are we to live in an atomic age?" Lewis replies:
"'Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.' In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways."
As he says somewhere else (in THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, maybe), the human death rate is 100 percent and cannot be increased or decreased. The bottom line is NOT that, knowing the inevitability of death, we should make ourselves miserable by brooding over our ultimate fate. It's one thing to take sensible precautions, quite another to live in fear. Just the opposite—we should live life abundantly. Lewis again:
"If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds."
Steven Pinker's two most recent books, THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE and ENLIGHTENMENT NOW, offer an antidote to the mistaken belief that we live in a uniquely, horribly violent age. Although Pinker and Lewis hold radically different world-views (Pinker is a secular humanist), both counsel against despair. Pinker demonstrates in exhaustive, rigorous detail that in most ways this is the best era in history in which to live—and not only in first-world countries. The instantaneous, global promulgation of news makes shocking, violent events loom larger in our minds than they would have for past generations. (But what's the alternative—to leave the public uninformed?)
We can deplore evils and work for solutions without losing our perspective.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt