A bitter pill to swallow
Highlands TodayTwenty-four years ago, April 1986: Chernobyl in Ukraine, worst nuclear plant accident in history. Nine years ago, Sept. 2001: Twin Towers, New York City, and the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., worst attack on U.S. soil in history. Five years ago, Aug. 2005: Katrina, costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. This year, April 2010: BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, largest marine spill in the history of the petroleum industry.
Published: September 9, 2010
Published: September 9, 2010
What was said of Chernobyl is true of all: Greater than other losses is the "mental health impact." The name "Chernobyl" translates to "wormwood" or "wormroots," a bitter plant used in pharmaceuticals. Of them an old wildlife book says: "The difference between poison and medicine is often a matter of how much is used, and how carefully." The challenge is to get through calamity and remain human. The paradox is that a bitter pill to swallow can be an instrument of healing.
Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's latest book, "The Grand Design," offers a not-so-grand proposition: The universe created itself out of nothing based on physical laws involving energy and gravity; a god is not needed. Though most of us are not Hawking's intellectual equal, it seems appropriate to fling his own clever words back: "Primitive life is very common and intelligent life is fairly rare."
Godlessness is primitive, even if a god is claimed. Primitive thinking is not limited to primordial times or simple, one-cell beings. On Aug. 15, the Afghanistan Taliban ordered the stoning of a young couple, caught trying to elope, accused of an illegal relationship. Family, friends and neighbors hurled the rocks; there was no meaningful protest from mainstream religious authorities.
A short time later in Iran, a misidentified newspaper picture may have caused a jailed 43-year-old widow, already facing a death-by-stoning sentence, to receive 99 lashes. On Aug. 30 in Portland, Ore., in an apparent random act of violence, a woman threw acid into the face of another woman, causing nightmare pain and probable disfigurement.
Other people's "great" or "small" labels have no value when disaster hits "you." A jet moving from transonic to supersonic speed breaks the sound barrier with earsplitting explosion. A bullwhip in skillful hands can also move faster than sound, causing a sharp crack. Some scientists believe long-tailed dinosaurs flicked their tails at supersonic velocities producing an intimidating boom. Whether explosion, crack, or boom, a calamity, as the British politician Edmund Burke noted, is "a mighty leveler."
Old Testament prophets were to "eat" or "digest" God's words, "sweet" to taste, "bitter" when meaning was clear. Ezekiel heard God say: "I looked for a man among them who would...stand...on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none" (22:30).
Catastrophe will come; the strong must keep their wits. Mother Teresa's writings reveal a struggle with doubt but faith rose again and again, subduing her intellect, emotions, and will at times when she "felt no presence of God whatsoever." She seemed strongest when confronted with life's worst, a bitter pill to swallow.
Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If you are a seeker of simple truth, we can find it together-side-by-side.
Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at lindadowning.com