Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Reminder to Practice Humility

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it buried the city of Pompeii under ash and pumice. The Roman Empire was at its height then but against Nature’s fury, it was defenseless.

Time and again we are reminded of our fragility in this connected world when Nature breaks out of her bounds (as we imagine them to be) and clarifies who is really in charge. A shift in the plates here, a buildup of pressure inside the earth there, and suddenly business as usual comes to a halt. All our technology and ingenuity and scientific advances become irrelevant. We are mere spectators gazing at something terrifying and indescribable. Sure, we can pick up the pieces after the fact to study and investigate and add to our knowledge but then suddenly there’s another cataclysm of one sort or another and we are back to where we began.

The volcano in southern Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier sends ash and silicate into the air. Born of ice and fire, the plume travels across land and ocean and soon the airspace over most of Europe is closed. People enjoying their spring vacations are stranded all over the world. Business deals are delayed. Artists are unable to perform. Crucial meetings are postponed. Home seems farther than it has ever seemed before. Even President Obama has to cancel his trip to attend the Polish president Lech Kaczynski’s funeral. Volcanic ash does not distinguish between an ordinary plane and Air Force One.

Natural calamities, perhaps more than ecology, teach us in unforgettable ways that we live in an interconnected world.

What we need to nurture in a technology-driven world is a sense of humility. If we put all of humankind’s achievements on one side and nature’s occasional yawn on the other, guess which side will tilt over? Yet we keep acting like masters of the universe, doing as we please, waging war, threatening, killing, pumping carbon into the air, plundering and raping the earth as if there will be no consequence.

Iceland’s Halldor Laxness, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1955 for his epic “Independent People” and other works, wrote of the tragedy that befalls man when he indulges in hubris. Fly too close to the sun and your wings will melt. We forget this but then in the middle of our party, an earthquake strikes, or a cyclone or a tsunami, and we realize anew how small a corner we occupy in the vast canvas of our existence.

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