Life and Death

I said that Christmas is a good time to think about the mystery of life.  Now the San Francisco Chronicle (12/28/04) gives us unwittingly a time to think about death.  A full page is devoted to a chart about "What the top 100 Bay Area execs made". Topping the list is Steve Jobs at $74,750,001.  I like that 1. He, like Microsoft's Bill Gates, is a college dropout. This brings up the question of MBAs. I briefly  watched a program on "Management Science". It began: "When people line up for any reason, in management science, we call it a queue".  It then went on to describe different kinds of queues. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates certainly have a blank in their education. Since success is the highest value of our competitive society, we should gasp with admiration. An accompanying article tells is that "CEOs at publicly traded companies receive about 500 times the pay of the average worker" and that the gap is getting larger.  There are many people around here who have been fired as an economy measure, and hospitals and schools are understaffed.  Does his inequality make sense, especially in a nation which talks so much about compassionate Christianity?  Gates certainly has shown compassion.  How much public-spiritedness the others have displayed I do not know. They should remember the old dictum: "You can't take it with you".

With unconscious irony, the same issue of the San Francisco Chronicle devotes a page to "PASSINGS" (death is a non-word). It does not list business executives, but those "who created beauty, laughter, music--and left us too soon".  Among the names I recognized are Alistair Cooke (once, like me, a Commonwealth Fund Fellow) and Peter Ustinov. That ordinary people just  die was made painfully clear in the stories about the Asian Tsunami.   The victims were divided in two classes: the thousands of poor locals, and the many well-to-do Western tourists who thought that lolling on the beach in a tropical paradise was an ideal way of spending Christmas.

As Virgil said: "Dis aliter visum"--the Gods thought otherwise.

Or, as Thomas Gray put it:
Alas, regardless of their doom
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come
Nor care beyond today.

The Western tourists who survived were divided into two classes.  Those who, simply dazed, deemed themselves lucky to be alive, and those who rushed to offer what held they could.  Many countries sent substantial help, There was the usual argument as to whether the US was stingy; it was not. When the Mexican Ambassador to Thailand was asked if Mexico was sending herlp, he replied: "Thailand does not need help; it is self-sufficient". Remember the definition of an ambassador?

The  immense tragedy raises the age-old question of the nature of God. We think of the Book of Job and of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which had such an impact of Western thought.  The hymn by the poet William Cowper seems singularly appropriate or in appropriate in these days when some 70,000 people have been killed by an "act of God":

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants his footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Istvan Simon writes: Professor Hilton reflected on the dead in the terrible tragedy in Asia. In Brazil the newspapers  had about equal space for the pictures of tourists in Thailand and the nameless unfortunates mostly in Sri Lanka.  Today's front page picture was that  of Karl, a 7 year old Swedish boy wondering about with a handwritten sign about his  parents and 2 brothers still missing.  Two Brazilians were among the dead.  The scale of the destruction is numbing, and the simple human stories like that of little Karl or the Sri Lankan that dug a grave for 5 of his family heartbreaking. It is sad to see that many of these people perhaps could have survived if the countries affected were in the network of early warnings for tsunamis.   Alas, only Australia received a warning. Life is so fragile.

RH: There is an early warning system for the Pacific. and last year a similar system was proposed for the Indian Ocean. The riperian countries turned down the proposal on the grounds of cost.  Penny wise, pound foolish.


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Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: December 30, 2004