The Faces of Misfortune


The mind flinches as it tries to absorb the devastating succession of natural disasters that have taken place merely within the last few years. Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico; multiple tsunamis in Indonesia; earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand; innumerable floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions and wildfires. And now Japan, with scenes surreal of wreckage and relentless rushing waters and lives swept away—a triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear catastrophe.

Here is a sketch from a visit we made to Japan when our son was teaching there. No matter where we went, total strangers were invariably kind, helpful, and generous, never hinting at the fact of our having dropped atomic bombs on them (the only country in the world to have suffered thus). On a walk one afternoon, we stopped to watch a woman working in her garden. Eventually noticing us, she invited us to see the rest of her garden—and her house—and meet her mother—and finally sent us off with just-harvested potatoes, radishes, and strawberries. This was absolutely typical of the entire trip.

I realize that politeness is a Japanese cultural value. There is a stiff-upper-lip quality that makes me think of stories about post-Blitzed World War II British (is there something about tea?), a characteristic that may lengthen the road to an American-style intimacy. But such sturdiness, resilience, and grace in the face of misfortune can be a blessing and a gift. Shikata ga nai.

The earth has grown so populous that natural disasters have enormous human impact, and simultaneously grown so connected that our common awareness of them is nearly instantaneous. The entire globe is now, truly, at our fingertips. It is theoretically possible to call up a picture of Anywhere, Earth, on the smartphone in one’s hand, if it has been visited by someone with a camera. And, thanks to international airlines (which actually used to be quite a speedy form of travel), many—through school or vacation or international aid organizations or family connections or business—have firsthand knowledge of worlds far from home. From knowledge, connection. We already carry the peoples and landscapes of the earth in our minds. The natural next step is the heart.

If you want to help, one way is to make a donation through the American Red Cross.

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