Monday, January 17, 2005

Cosmic balance is upset

When I was a kid, I believed in cosmic balance. Everything that happened in one's life evened out, a sort of algebraic canceling out of pain and beauty that ultimately rendered both sides of the equation equal. You could count on, say, finding a dollar on the sidewalk after school if your pants ripped during gym class.

I also believed we had a finite allotment of words that had to last until we died, a conclusion reached after visiting a nursing home with my elementary school class. I saw old people who, in attempting to speak, made sounds like monsters in a movie. I learned later about strokes, but at the time I figured they had gone through their words too fast.

The human psyche, or maybe the soul, seeks explanation for what it can't comprehend, most particularly of events that are painful, frightening or unjust. From the most primitive cultures to our own, through stories and scripture, the quest for answers has led to God, whatever the name or form.

In the aftermath of the southern Asia tsunami that took more than 150,000 lives, people ask: "Why did this horror happen? Why did God allow it?'' I hesitate to raise the questions at all, knowing the answers will raise only more questions. But an event of this scale - biblical, some have said - has even nonreligious people grappling with the nature of God and the purpose of suffering. I posed the questions to followers of different faiths.

Hasem Bazian, a lecturer on Islam, quoted the prophet Hadith to me. "If God loves a servant, he sends tribulation upon him,'' echoing the story of Job from the Old Testament. "In Islam, all those who die in a natural catastrophe die in a state of martyrdom,'' Bazian said.

For those left behind, he said, a tragedy of this scope is a reminder of God's power and our own mortality. "It's a recognition of the need to walk lightly upon this Earth with a sense of humility and respect for the divine,'' Bazian said.

Baslim Elkarra, a Muslim with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said a colleague of his lost 30 family members in the tsunami. Elkarra has reminded himself of a passage in the Quran in which one line is repeated twice: "Verily with difficulty comes ease.''

"Life is not supposed to be easy,'' he said. "How we respond is the test of our faith. Here in the West people ask, 'How could God do this?' Over there, they turn to God even more, asking for his mercy.''

Roman Catholic Monsignor Harry Schlitt agrees there is a purpose and only God knows what it is. He rejects any notion that the purpose is punishment for sins, as some fundamentalists will always claim after a tragedy.

"We have to live with the nature that is ours - human nature and the nature we have around us,'' Schlitt said. "God did not cause the tsunami. It is nature taking its course.''

Chief priest Ananth Subramania-Batter said Hindus believe that every person has a predestined date of death. "If God decides I am going to live 60 years, that is my fate,'' he said through an interpreter.

He said the souls of those who died in southern Asia are still alive and will be reborn, perhaps again as a human, perhaps an animal or insect. It depends on the person's karma, determined by how he or she lived in this life.

"It is a lesson for all of us,'' the priest said, "that no matter how secure we feel or how advanced we are, anything can happen at any time and anywhere.''

The Rev. Amos Brown, a Baptist, said the tsunami is not an expression of God any more than famine or war or street violence. But we find ourselves questioning God in this tragedy because so many people died at once, he said.

"If you ask why God didn't stop the tsunami, why aren't you asking why God didn't stop slavery?'' Brown said. "Why he didn't talk to George Bush before he went to war? Look at Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia. Where is God there?''

It is a misguided question, Brown said. What we should be asking in the wake of any tragedy isn't "Where is God?'' but "Where are we?'' The answer in this case is an amazingly hopeful one. We are everywhere that help is needed, sending money and supplies in unprecedented numbers. It is exactly what God would want of us, Brown said.

"But,'' he asked, "what about the large numbers of people around the world, and on our own streets, dying in slow motion? Where are we for them?''

Another question without any good answer.