A friend whose birthday fell on 9/11 spent a few years worrying about his parties. Was it in bad taste to party on a day so many were mourning?
Some people are odious by ignoring national or global pain. Other folk are the false messianic types that try to bear the weight of the world’s evils in their bodies. Avoiding both forms of self-centeredness is tricky.
Should we be sad about what is happening in Japan?
Obviously only a wicked person would be happy about the disaster, but does that mean it is in bad taste to be happy about other things in one’s more immediate life? Superficially, the role of mourning with those that mourn seems to apply. This is particular the case when I meet my friends who are directly involved with the suffering Japanese nation.
So I should mourn, yes?
Well, yes, unless you also know people whose lives are going splendidly. Many of my students have friends and families having good weeks. One friend got engaged.
Can I be happy about friend’s good news?
If so, then how sad should we be about distant disasters? In a world of Internet news services, there will never be a moment to get married or celebrate where it is also not a moment of deepest mourning for someone also created in God’s image.
In a world so interconnected that every weaker brother or sister can stop our liberty, the old rules must be applied with uncommon care.
My own rule is to proportion my sorrow to proximity and calling. The closer the suffering is to those with whom I am in relationship with or the greater my duty to those persons, the greater the appropriate mourning. My children’s suffering trumps almost any party planning in my life, because my relationship with and duty to my children is so great. My primary duties are to my family, church, neighbors, and city. Many of these folk are hard to love, but my calling is to love them.
This also applies to my job. As founder and director of a program, I mourn when some member of our community suffers in a way each student in the program need not do. At the same time, I am not a parent or pastor to the student, so it would be wrong to pretend greater grief or mourning than is appropriate to my role.
If called to be “mourner in chief” for the nation as President Obama is, then I would have avoided filling out my NCAA brackets while a key friend of the United States is suffering. The President is both our head of state and head of government. As head of state, he must embody our collective sorrow for Japan. This nation is a key friend of the United States and so our national mourning should be profound.
I am not, however, President or Ambassador to Japan, so it seems fine for me to fill out a NCAA bracket and joke with my friends about the games. I would not do so the day a student in our community died, even if nobody was watching.
Since media has shown me about the disaster in Japan, I must be somewhat concerned, but pretending more concern than is appropriate is unfitting. For many of my friends, this has been an excellent week and it would be wrong to cast a pall on their job.
We are not Atlas and need not even shrug off the weight of the world. It does not rest on us.
Our common humanity demands that the disaster not be the subject of jokes and that I be sensitive to people in my circle who might be in deeper. One example is avoiding normal analogies I might use in class to “the great wave” that Plato describes punishing Atlantis. This is the wrong time for that discussion, because it might wrongly cause students to associate the two stories and draw painful and false conclusions.
God save the people of Japan, comfort them, and have mercy on them. This is a prayer from my heart and yet tonight I must rejoice with those who rejoice. I pray God’s blessing on their joy. This too is genuine emotion.
This side of Paradise I will have to accept that every party will be in the midst of sorrow and every funeral on a day of joy. Someday sorrow will be no more and the joy will be complete. Even so come Lord Jesus.