Saturday, October 15, 2005

Disaster Fatigue by Mark Morford

You can take drugs. You can drink heavily. You can numb yourself with any number of whoopers and downers and zappers and nerve calmers, prescription and illegal and everything in between, thus rendering your psycho-emotional system moot and null and void and completely, happily unwilling to give much of a damn.

You can deny. You can reject. You can play dumb. You can ignore the news and shun the headlines and close your eyes to the bloody gruesome photos and go about your work and play in the park with your dog and read only Us Weekly and Boing Boing and pretend that all this horrible global tragedy, these hurricanes and earthquakes and various planetary abuses, the appalling death tolls and severed limbs and blood-drenched streets, they never really happen on the same planet you inhabit.

Sure, you're not stupid: Deep down you know they're swirling like cold fire all around you, but you can't face them directly. You can't acknowledge too much, too deeply, too quickly, lest it burn your karmic tongue and rip you asunder and depress your spirit and make life just miserable as all hell. It's just too much to process.

I know how it is. You might say to yourself, just this month alone: "I cannot take any more, over 35,000 people dead from a massive quake in Pakistan and India and hundreds more buried alive in mudslides in Mexico and Guatemala as a result of Hurricane Stan, still more piles of dead in New Orleans and dozens (hundreds?) dying in unimaginably brutal ways every day in bombings and vicious warfare in Iraq, and that doesn't even include the everyday gunfire and the murders and the rapes and the busload of elderly people bursting into flames in Dallas, and the questions cannot help but emerge: Where to put all this bleak information? How to possibly sort through and find solace and hope? And by the way, what the hell is going on? Why so dark and violent and dour all of a sudden? What is happening to the world?"

It's tempting, it's understandable, to want to block it all out, to take only small doses of the horrors of the planet and shun the rest like a rich person shuns poor people. The world often careens at us hot and fast and mean, and when the atrocities pile up our systems often automatically go into shock -- they want shut down, recoil, and it becomes the most difficult thing of all to remain alert and compassionate and tuned in and remember that context, of course, is all you might have to get you through.

Context. Perspective. Do you need some? Would it be at all helpful in the wake of all this death and tragedy and a world that seems to be increasingly strained and riotous and overheated? Because a fascinating dose of context arrived just this week, as astonished astronomers noted a stupendous new (well, old) development in deep, deep space, the discovery of a rather shocking distant galaxy that appears to be much more well formed and dense and ripe than any astronomer would have guessed it could be, given its proximity to, you know, the dawn of time.

In other words, humankind has found yet another phenomenon -- in this case, a massive, mature galaxy connected to a string of 300 galaxies so unimaginably vast it makes our little solar system, our entire Milky Way, seem like a grain of sand floating in a giant cosmic ocean (which, of course, is exactly what it is) -- they found another astounding and potentially world-changing wonder they cannot fully explain, one which, simply put, could alter our entire perception of how and when it was all created in the first place.

It's called HUDF-JD2 (for Hubble Ultra Deep Field) and it's officially the most distant galaxy on record, meaning it was formed when the universe was but a squealing, gurgling 800 million-year-old infant, and if it's as dense and mature as some scientists believe, then it throws all galaxy-forming theories into confusion and you may take what Nigel Sharp, program officer for extragalactic astronomy and cosmology at the U.S. National Science Foundation, had to say as mantra, as gospel, as balm for your troubled spirit. It is this: "One of the standard problems with the universe is that it's large enough that unlikely things happen pretty often."

Write it on your hand. Scribble it in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Tattoo it onto your tongue because it is perhaps the most beautiful truism you will hear all year.

But this is not the important part. HUDF-JD2 per se isn't what can provide a tiny bit of balm to your tragedy-overdosed, Bush-ravaged, violence-numbed heart. The important part is how this major discovery is itself but a speck, a glimmer, a hint of a whisper of the vastness of Things We Still Don't Understand.

Which is to say, what we know of this world, of life, of death, of God, of time, of the cosmos, of all mankind's knowledge and all our experience and all our collected wisdom from millions of years sitting on this spinning water balloon still fits into a tiny thimble, a small Ziploc sandwich bag tossed into a massive churning shimmering sea of mystery and uncertainty and unquenchable weirdness.

There. Is that better? Does that give any solace? Can you step back and take the longer view and see the planet in context of the cosmic mystery, the Deep Unknown, with the never-ending parade of human tragedy merely part of a larger, bittersweet galactic circus, life merely a single line of obtuse poetry and death merely a giant question mark? No? Try it again. Look at the stars. Look deeper. Remember, in space, no one can hear you scoff.

Personally, I suggest balance, a little bit of everything. Stay informed, read like mad, feel the world deeply, but shop and play and take your happy inebriants and have as much sex as possible. Study the news intently and donate money to charities and volunteer when you can and, if nothing else, quite literally hunker down and pray your ass off to whatever potent divine energy you believe in, even if it's just yourself, your own breath. Offer up healing and hope from your heart to the world, as pure energy, raw light, if at all possible.

And then sigh heavily and take off your clothes and drink a whole bottle of very good cold sake as you take a very hot bath, restlessly content in the knowledge that you're merely part of this vast cosmological uncertainty, that Earth itself is one of Nigel's "unlikely things" that, well, just sort of happened. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, check out the long view. Hey, it's the universe: It's not supposed to make sense.

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