Intimations of Mortality

Originally published August 13, 2010.

William Wordsworth’s most famous work is Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Reflections of Early Childhood.” It is one of my favorite poems, exploring the lost pleasures of childhood that Wordsworth believes are hints of the immortality we left behind:

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

And again,

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Setting aside theological mysteries and controversies for another day, what has preoccupied me for that last month and a half has not been immortality, past or future, but increasing intimations of mortality:  My own,as I have experienced an unusual and thought provoking spell of genuine illness, something unusual for me; but also increasing intimations of mortality in the world in which we live, highlighted by the Gulf oil spill but buttressed by a host of other events.

First, my own encounter with mortality:  Around the first of July I started to experience unusual intestinal symptoms.  No, not what you are likely thinking but rather the opposite:  My entire system began to shut down – a phenomenon known in the medical world as ‘paralytic ileus’.  This continued for the better part of a month, and included several doctor’s visits, one trip to Urgent Care, one to the Emergency Room of our local university hospital, 24 hours in-hospital “observation” (whatever that means), and finally laparascopic surgery for an obstruction that turned out not to be there.  At the end of the experience, all I had was ‘Maybe you had a virus – and the surgery slowed your recovery.’

In the process, I lost 20 pounds in about two weeks.  I missed two conferences for which I had done much of the planning and in which I had significant leadership roles.   I would have told you 3 months ago that these events were among the most important things I would do all summer.  Instead I found myself just trying to get from one day to the next.  You will note that this is the first post in almost two months – now you know why.

The lesson I’ve taken away from this?  The reality of my own mortality.

Let me explain.

I had great plans this summer, important things to do.  People were depending on me. But all it took was a paralyzed intestine to blow the schedule to bits.  I have talents and abilities, thoughts and dreams, just as you do.  But it all depends on a body that works.  When the body doesn’t work, I don’t get much done.

There’s a bigger lesson here – the mortality of the human enterprise.

Consider the BP oil spill.   A company decides to drill for oil in deep water.  They’ve done it many times before, they know there is a lot of oil on this site.  They are convinced that chances of something going wrong are almost zero.  And if something were to go wrong, it’s almost impossible for them to imagine anything more than a minor problem that will be taken care of almost overnight.  But everything does go wrong.  The well explodes.  The “blowout preventer”, an expensive and intricate piece of equipment designed to be the final and fail-safe preventer-of-disaster of last resort turns out to be useless.  The result is more than 100 days of oil exploding into the Gulf of Mexico, billions of dollars lost, one of the world’s most profitable companies reduced to insolvency, hundreds of thousands of human lives disrupted, and unknown damage to some of the richest ocean waters in the world.

Of the millions of people living and working on the shores of the Gulf on the 19th of April, 2010, not one expected that their entire season – tourism, fishing, even oil drilling – was about to be canceled.  But it happened, and looking back from the vantage point of the present, it is hard to understand why we all didn’t see it coming.  Our economy, indeed our entire lives, rests on a foundation much more fragile than we want to think about.

And now bigger things are happening that should call us to the same caution about our biological foundations.  Hundreds of wild fires are blazing in Russia, amid a heatwave that the Russians claim is the worst in a thousand years. Torrential rains and mudslides in China that have wiped out a city and killed hundreds – maybe thousands.  And in Pakistan, a ‘super monsoon’ greater than any ever recorded before has affected more than 10 per cent of the population (15 million is the current number but that is certain to rise).  The flood has wiped out half of Pakistan’s agricultural land in the last two weeks (see the map).  Crop losses alone are in the billions of dollars after the first flood wave, and another is on its way as I write.   No one is yet able to calculate the cost of replacing roads, bridges, oil refineries and power plants.  One UN official guesses that this disaster is worse than the tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 and the Haitian earthquake combined.

A friend was in the town of Gilgit, in the far north, when the floods hit.  Here’s his description:

All roads are blocked – to Hunza, to Ghizar & Chitral, to Kohistan and both Kaghan routes. The estimate is it will take 3-4 more weeks to re-open the [main highway]. So supplies are low – no diesel and increasingly less food. We are fine at the Serena but many people are suffering. Local floods and landslides have destroyed and damaged houses as well as taken lives, and the water channels people depend on for daily life as well as their crops have been heavily damaged.

In a phone conversation with another friend in the area I learned that in the same town banks are closing.  Why, are they out of cash?  No, they are running out of fuel to run their generators.

What is the long term outlook?  Here’s the first friend’s analysis:

The talk in Gilgit-Baltistan is about whether or not we are entering a phase of sustained environmental instability. The spectacular Attabad slide / dam from January followed by a summer unlike any seen for a long time raise questions about the stability and predictability of life in this region. Global warming is mentioned though some also mention a history of patterns like this, the previous one being almost a century ago. There is little doubt, however, that this level of natural activity, if sustained, will require significant human adaptation. For example, keeping any roads open to China and down country will become difficult. And now life here depends on those roads, unlike 50 years ago.

To summarize:  We modern humans have developed an increasingly complex society on the same fragile biological foundation we have always had to work with, without remembering how fragile that foundation really is.  ‘Six inches of topsoil…’  We have assaulted our foundation in a variety of ways, not least of which is, of course, climate change or global warming:

NEW YORK — Floods, fires, melting ice and feverish heat: From smoke-choked Moscow to water-soaked Iowa and the High Arctic, the planet seems to be having a midsummer breakdown. It’s not just a portent of things to come, scientists say, but a sign of troubling climate change already under way.

The weather-related cataclysms of July and August fit patterns predicted by climate scientists, the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization says – although those scientists always shy from tying individual disasters directly to global warming. [AP via Wash Post][Picture is smoke from the Russian fires from a NASA satellite – click for larger image]

What is the solution?  When talking about climate change, scientists and policy makers usually speak of two different but complementary approaches: Mitigation and Adaption – and these approaches work with a variety of human problems:

Mitigation means trying to prevent  a bad, difficult or unpleasant situation from happening in the first place.  Adaptation means learning to cope after that situation has already happened.
In terms of my intestinal difficulties, mitigation involved trying to find the source of the problem and using various techniques to resolve the issue, up to and including my unsuccessful surgery.  Adaptation meant changing what I ate until I found something (like beef broth) that would go down and stay down and still provide me with some nutrition.

Mitigation with regard to the oil spill might have involved extra safety devices as are already in use in many other parts of the world, more inspections or even a decision not to drill in some places even if we can because the cost of a possible accident is simply too great.  Adaptation is what we’ve been watching for the last 100 days – and that experience alone is a valuable lesson that adaptation is always more expensive and more difficult than mitigation.

In terms of the climate change driven phenomena we are seeing this summer, it’s already too late to mitigate.  While we should do all we can to avoid additional green-house gas driven climate change, these fires and floods have already happened.  What these events show is that sometimes it is not just difficult, but actually impossible to adapt.  There is no way to prepare for a flood like that now devastating Pakistan, and you cannot do anything to lessen the impact of the hundreds of fires in Russia.  Both of these are minor events compared to many other predicted effects of climate change, like  increases in sea level.

What does all this mean?  It means we – the human race – are already reaping the harvest of centuries of abusing God’s creation.  We need to prepare for a difficult time ahead.  And we need to repent.  Perhaps God will hear:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.  2 Chronicles 7:14

[See also How Do You Pray About an Oil Spill?]

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3 thoughts on “Intimations of Mortality”

  1. And I was thinking: 1 Corinthians 12:22-24
    . . . the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member . . . probably applies environmentally speaking.

    Glad you’re better.

  2. Pingback: Andrew Wetzel
  3. “…The things which I have seen, I now can see no more.”
    The devastation in Pakistan is such a tragedy that I have sat in tears in front of the computer, weeping for the pain of so many people, so poor, owning so little, and now they have lost that little. The Pakistan we knew from 1954 to 1988 is gone, washed away by a monsoon and rivers out of control – the same rivers that are the life of the country. May God show His mercy in the midst of loss and destruction.

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