Register Sunday | December 16 | 2018

Intolerable Loss

We believe ourselves far more altruistic than we are.

How do you make sense of these numbers? 228,771, that's the estimate at the far end of the loss spectrum. The conservative effort is just over 177,000. And that might be said to be the hopeful estimate. So how do you make sense of numbers like this, of loss and destruction on this level? I don't know the answer to that.

Let me admit to feeling far removed from the tsunami destruction. I don't know what that admission does, but it's something I've been thinking about the past few weeks. I look at the television and think what it must be like to have something like that happen. What a horrible experience to survive.

On the day the news broke I remember wondering if this would be to them what September 11 was to us. And by us I mean New Yorkers, not the millions of other Americans who felt they were attacked that day too. I wondered if those people had felt the same paralysis I felt when I watched the towers fall, a paralysis that was both physical and emotional. The physical lasted only a short while, I finally just put one foot in front of the other and went down stairs. The emotional paralysis went on over a year after.

But then as the days rolled on and the numbers built like the bodies they would stack over sand that had ended up on concrete and dirt I realized the two events have nothing in common. This was like September 11 to the nth degree, exponentially multiplied into something that gives you no foothold in rational to grab onto. It's too big.

I've always thought that the benefit of having to deal with an event like the collapse of the World Trade center disaster was that there was a reliable victim. We could all point to something and say, "Them. They did it. Those fucking assholes razed our buildings. They hijacked a goddamned airplane and threw it at the buildings. They made it fall. Those mother fuckers made it fall." I may disagree with much that my President says-hell, of late I've even disagreed with who he seems to be as a person-but soon after I remember him standing up and calling those who did it "evil." Of course, shortly after he then pointed his finger at Iraq and said "evil" and I thought, "Well, yeah, sure, but..." and then the finger swiveled again, and then it swiveled again. I'm now waiting for it to turn around full circle. Eventually he has to point at himself, right? There'd be no one else left to stamp.

But the word made sense. They were evil. They had to be evil. How else can you explain someone deliberately ending life on such a large scale, with such a broad stroke? I don't mind the world hating the United States right now. I understand a lot about what would drive them to despise us. But it takes a far leap from understanding what drives others to dislike and distrust us to seeing the blanket killing of American citizens as anything but evil.

So while we had to deal with the aftermath, and in some way are still a city in recovery, and in small measures perhaps we always will be, at least for this generation, we had our reason; we had someone to blame.

But if you sit on the sand and look out at the ocean, if you then turn around to see what used to be there gone from those places, the people who used to live there gone, well, how does your mind make sense of this? 225,000.

I was watching a random show last Sunday and a man was on TV trying to do the same thing I have been, trying to make sense of it. And then he said something. "You just have to rely on the fact that there is a plan and that this was a part of it. For while many lost their lives, for each victim there are tens of thousands who still live. For that we should all thank God."

Well, sure, yes, um, right. But if you thank God for the lives he spared then who do you blame for the taken ones? Who is accountable for this? Who can you blame? Where do you go?

When hundreds of thousands of human beings are aimlessly and wantonly and randomly snuffed out then how do we thank God for saving those He did and not at least give him the middle finger for being so indiscriminate with the rest. Was this really a choice?

There was a story about a mother who held on to both of her kids for hours in the water before finally letting her 5-year-old son go so she could cling to a branch. By a miracle he lived. The kid survived. Ignore for a second the pending conversation he is going to have with his mother when he's old enough to understand that he cast her out into the surf and take the simple fact that he's alive. I cannot give credit for such a random thing to God unless I'm going to add to his bill the fact that He put that mother in a ridiculous position that she felt the only way to save herself was to let her child go. If we do anything we survive. I cannot say I would have done differently in her position, but I'd like believe I might. That's another thing we do, other than survive. We believe ourselves far more altruistic than we are.

My other favorite is excusing through absence. God likes to be there when things go wrong, but another voice on the TV proclaimed that when the waves came in, "God was not there." Great, so the bastard turned His back and walked away when He saw the waves coming? What kind of God is this anyway?

I'm not saying that people with faith are wrong. Just that perhaps they should stop acting as spokesman. When things go wrong (and not in a two airplanes head for these buildings wrong, but inexplicably wrong, unfathomably wrong) perhaps it's better not to try an answer. Maybe, when all is said and done, no answer is available. Or maybe if Heaven exists, and maybe when you get there, you can ask Him for me and tell Me what He says. I'd like to know.

Faith can be an amazing thing, the most powerful tool. But faith is not an answer to a question, or even an explanation for a series of events. Not in why those towers fell, or the hurricanes crossed the state of Florida in an election year (I mean, if God is there, then why aren't these messages of disapproval?), not in the landslides and not to a tsunami that took the lives of so many people you cannot make sense of the numbers when you see them.

I'd rather ask myself simpler questions.

Like why is it that the cost of President Bush's inauguration (between $40 and $70 million depending on which estimate you believe) far exceed the first 2 contributions the United States made to the tsunami relief effort ($15 million and $30 million if I'm remembering right). Put those numbers in perspective. Fathom that. What was the justification? I'd ask my President but, like God, he's not telling me.

I am not a man of faith, but I am one of belief of a sort, and if you have faith I hope it gives you comfort, provides you with an answer that I can't find. Because I don't find answers to events like these. This kind of loss, even if it is, in the end, just a happenstance of nature and there's nothing that could be done, is just unacceptable. For those who live through it, they must find it unendurable. Unaccountable. This intolerable loss.

The only thing that ever comes out of this is the one thing I always marvel at. Our amazing ability sometimes to just survive.