It’s been a day of processing for us: a dawning realisation of the work we will need to do to reconstruct our life. We still don’t have any idea whether our house, with all our possessions, is still standing, or when we will return; what we can, should be doing – especially with two small kids.
For the moment, however, we are safe and well when so many other families have been destroyed.
Haiti’s tragedy is beyond counting. The United Nations also has suffered another blow comparable – it now appears – to the Baghdad bombing in 2003, although this time due to natural catastrophe rather than human intent. Over coming days the organisation will need to take stock; there will be many important stories to tell about the people who lost their lives in service of a better world. I intend to relate some of them. We have almost certainly lost friends.
On a personal level, it is decidedly surreal to be so connected to, yet so far from, a crisis which has commanded global attention. Miami is just across the water, yet a world away.
We have been inundated with kind comments and offers of help, and – notably – references to miracles, divine providence, prayers. I do not want to jump to any conclusions, but Anna may be one of the last remaining members of the civilian management of the UN peacekeeping mission. Through sheer random chance. Had we been in Haiti, had the quake come next week instead of this, had we not delayed our holiday until after the New Year, she would have been in that building.
I was religious as an adolescent, but later turned to atheism due to my difficulty with belief systems that condemn others who – by accident of birth and geography – do not follow a certain creed. To my developing morality, that was incompatible with our sense of common but diverse humanity.
I also found alternative sources of deep morality in humanist thought, and feel that we can strive to be better people without reference to a divine being. I followed my heart.
But moments like this test atheism to the limit. I have found myself, almost despite myself, whispering a word of thanks. I remember the old religious me; it is down there somewhere. We are hard-wired to see agency, especially in moments of great change, great import; we find it unsettling to see our lives as random events, whatever our rational selves say. Even though I fundamentally see our escape as pure luck, it comes with a niggling sensation. And I do appreciate the prayers, as they are sincerely meant, acts of pure kindness.
The question is what to do with our reprieve. Hopefully something useful.
I also feel a slight sense of guilt.
Not at the fact we were not in Haiti… that was sheer good fortune, and I have no regrets (except a creaky old journalistic pang at missing a major event).
But at the fact that I am considering our own fortunes – the loss of our house, the challenge now facing our potentially homeless young family, our careers – whilst those of others are so much worse. We will be fine. Others will not.
Still, we can’t help it. We all need a sense of where we might be going. That is intrinsically human.
PS This horrifying story about Pat Robertson is a powerful reminder to we humanists why we have chosen the path we have.
On the same issue, someone alerted me to this bizarre claim by some Christians in 1998 that they had actually taken Haiti back from the Devil. Such demented stuff.
It is also disturbing to see David Brooks’ invocation of voodoo as an explanation for why Haiti is “progress resistant”