Reprinted by permission of HBGUSA/Little, Brown and the author, Peter Trachtenberg. Copyright © 2008 by Peter Trachtenberg.
Your Eyes Are upon Me,
Never miss a local story.
and I Am Not
She was sick a long time, but at the time I knew her best she was healthy, a beautiful young woman with translucent olive skin and the eyes of a Sienese Madonna, slanted but flashing majolica blue, and broad shoulders that kept the beauty from being too delicate. Yet when I think of her, it is as she was in her illness. I don't understand why this should be so. I didn't see Linda much when she was ill, I was afraid to see her, I didn't know what to say, and Linda herself was withdrawing from everybody but her family and close friends. By then we were no longer close. We still called each other by the nicknames we'd made up years before, but this was a sign that our relationship was essentially nostalgic. If she hadn't died when she did, we probably would have gone on drifting apart, gently, with an occasional fond backward glance and a wave that in time would be meaningless because we could no longer see whom we were waving to.
In the late 1970s we were coworkers at a threadbare but spunky arts organization that paid staff a starting salary of $3.50 an hour and expected them, among other things, to restock the bathrooms with toilet paper. Our friendship was a work friendship. It was the friendship of people who share a desk and pass each other the Wite-Out, who finish each other's paperwork and field each other's phone calls. " Linda's not here right now, but maybe I can help you? I'm her associate." Actually Linda would be there, holding up a tracking sheet on which she'd written no more $$!! And after I'd gotten off the phone without offering the client a dime more than what we'd already given him, she'd say, "I like the way you helped that guy," and I'd say, "Hey, that's what I'm here for. I love helping people."
Of course she was more likely to write $3k, since she had nothing against the fellow on the other end, just wanted to eat her lunch in peace. Our clients were poets and novelists and librarians and social workers, heads of college English departments and administrators at senior centers in forlorn northern towns where the snow was gray with ash. Many of them were difficult people—angry, crafty, wheedling, given to tantrums of outraged self-importance—but Linda was always patient with them and kinder than she had to be. She was a good person.
I'm not sure she'd be happy with my describing her that way, goodness being to virtues what beige is to colors. But she was, in a casual, unself-conscious, unfanatical way, her goodness not cultivated but growing wild, like a weed. Once I was making fun of a poet we knew, a thundering, oracular pest who was always hassling us for fifty-dollar gigs and whose style of reading was to declaim something meaningless with a long pause in the middle and a hypnotic widen- ing of his eyes: I myself . . . am . . . myself! When I was done imitating him, Linda laughed, but then she shook her head sadly. "Poor Andrew, he can't help it. He's got problems." A while later she recommended him for a reading series that paid especially well. Maybe a truly good person wouldn't have laughed, but I'm talking about the goodness of persons and not of angels.
As kind as she was, she was no pushover. A stubborn, contrarian vein ran through her personality. She'd probably gotten it from her father. He was a doctor, a brilliant, tactless overachiever who'd bulldozed his way into medical school before he could shave, bulldozed his way into practice, and then set about bulldozing his children onto the various paths he'd chosen for them. Linda was the only one who pushed back. She didn't want to be a doctor; she wanted to be a poet. She didn't care if it meant putting herself through graduate school on her own dime or having to listen to the acid scorn with which the old man pronounced the initials "MFA." Nothing could move her against her will, not even the universal bulldozer of cool. Like practically everybody else in our office, she wrote poems, but hers weren't about her genitals or her feelings. They were about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and they were sestinas.
Maybe Linda seemed so good to me because I was so conscious of what I was, which wasn't bad so much as spineless, flailed by appetites I was always apologizing for but never really tried to resist. Back then I used to take a vial of meth with me to work, like a little thermos, and sip from it through the day. Once, halfway through the morning, I re- alized that the vial had come open in the inside pocket of my sport coat. It was drenched. Racing into the bathroom, I tore off the jacket and began frantically, abjectly sucking the lining. But even as I sucked, I imagined Linda coming in and finding me like that. I pictured her shaking her head with a small, sad smile. "Oh, poor Peter, he can't help it," she'd say to anyone who tried to pick on me. " He's got problems."
I don't really know how we became friends. People rarely make friends with their superegos. Maybe I befriended Linda in order to disarm her. I liked to make her laugh and to that end used to regale her with imitations of everybody from our more irritating clients to Idi Amin. The payoff was that moment when her watchful stillness broke and she abandoned herself to laughter, her head tossed back, her stomach quaking. Watching that laughter, I felt the relief of a comic who's managed to break up a roomful of stiffs. But why was I so relieved? Linda wasn't my boss; she had no power over me. She wasn't even that much better a worker than I was. Anyway, I wasn't that much of a fuckup. Hungover or not, most mornings I made it into the office before she did. She was a comically deep sleeper. You could surround her with alarm clocks set to go off a minute apart, you could pop a paper bag in her ear, and still she'd sleep on. A few times she came in with her hair wet and explained that, finding no other way to wake her and being late for work himself, her husband had dumped a pot of water on her head.
We'd been working together for about six months when she got a phone call. I didn't notice her answer it. At some point, though, I became aware that an unfamiliar note had entered her voice. I looked up. She'd turned away from me and was holding the phone so tightly that her knuckles had gone white. "Yes," she said, and then, "When?" and then, "God." The last came out tonelessly, as if she were reading from a script, not her script but somebody else's. I came up behind her and placed my hands on her shoulders. It was the first time I'd ever touched her. Only after she hung up did she start to cry. Her father had just died of a heart attack. I looked at her in wonder. I had never seen someone so close to death. Its glow surrounded her. Later I realized it was not just death but loss, unmitigated and unalloyed. She'd loved her father without the usual grudges. She'd once told me that she gave him her poems to read. I hadn't shown my father anything I'd written since junior high. We called her husband, he came to get her, and the two of them drove up to New England for the funeral. This was the first misfortune.
A while after that I left the job. I left it of my own free will but under a cloud. My bad habits had gotten worse; there'd been an episode involving the emergency room at St. Vincent's, and it had gotten back to my office—unavoidably, since two of my coworkers had had to take me in. Everybody was tactful; I don't remember getting so much as a warning. But still, it was embarrassing to go to work every day with people who had possibly saved my life—and at the very least seen me half-naked and half-unconscious, with vomit on my chin. When a chance for another job came up, I took it.
Naturally, Linda and I didn't see each other as much; maybe we had coffee once in a while. And so I was surprised when she called and asked me to dinner. We met at a discon- certingly nice restaurant off Sixth Avenue; I wasn't sure I could afford it. There was some scuffling about whether I would order something to eat along with my drinks, and then over dinner, in that same cautious, airport announcer's voice I'd heard before, her improbably large hands folded primly on the table before her, she told me that she and her husband were getting a divorce.
I looked at her expectantly, waiting for the story. There had to be a story. It would have something to do with sex. For all that I thought of myself as worldly, deep down I assumed that people divorced only because of that. But there was no story, or rather the things Linda told me wouldn't cohere into the kind of story I recognized. She'd taken her marriage vows seriously, which in the 1970s was a wildly eccentric thing to do, especially for someone still in her twenties. It was like being a Luddite. I don't remember what reason she gave for the breakup. Maybe she and her husband didn't communicate; maybe they no longer wanted the same things. Marriages are fragile constructions, perhaps none more so than the ones that are based on love. It was the second misfortune.
We saw even less of each other, the things we had in com- mon dropping away. The next I knew she had a new boy- friend. He was very tall and elegant, with a matinee idol's mustache. "Is he good to you?" I asked her. I could tell the question embarrassed her. I was turning into a blurter. Sometime after that I married a woman I'd met while on my way to cop heroin. Linda brought Star to the wedding. I can't imagine what they made of it. It was the wedding of two people who'd met in the course of a drug buy and were trying to pretend otherwise, not all that persuasively.
A year and a half later Linda and Star got married, too. I don't remember if they invited me. Linda looks very happy in her wedding pictures. They moved into an apartment that was the kind of place people used to have in mind when they came to New York to become famous. It had high ceilings and parquet floors, and on warm nights they could stand on the terrace and look down at Central Park, a calm dim pool amid frantically lit streets where cars coursed and jostled. Linda still worked for the arts organization, although instead of giving out grants she now designed its magazine. The endless procession of favor seekers had begun to make her misanthropic. She liked fonts and layouts; they satisfied her taste for order. Her drafting table stood beside a window, arrayed with pencils and X-Acto knives even after Macs made the old tools obsolete, even after she became too ill to use them. I pictured her working there, with Star slouched on the love seat in the next room, writing on a yellow pad, a Bach prelude on the stereo. In the silence between movements you could hear the scratch of pencils.
My marriage ended. For a while I lived in a converted pickle factory a few blocks from the East River. In damp weather its crumbling brick still gave off a smell of brine. My roommate was a proofreader who worked the lobster shift. Most mornings he'd come home as I was doing my wake-up shot and stand outside the bathroom until I was finished, then trudge in to do his own. Each of us suspected the other of stealing from him, and we disliked each other so much that we refused to shoot up with the same tie. I moved, moved again. My joints hurt all the time. Once or twice I came to on a gurney.
During this time a number of people I knew died: of overdoses, in car wrecks, one in a fire that started when he nodded out with a lit cigarette between his fingers. A few of them were presenting with the coughs and night sweats of what would turn out to be AIDS. Some of these people I liked and some of them I despised, but I viewed what happened to them in an actuarial spirit, as a predictable risk of the life we shared. "Really, we all ought to be dead," I used to tell friends, but I was usually loaded when I said it. Deep down, of course, I was afraid. Fear should have made me cautious, but instead it made me reckless, like some timid nocturnal animal that suddenly hurls itself into the glare of approaching headlights. The time I felt safest was the moment before I pitched forward on the toilet seat. Like many heroin addicts, I consumed the drug in a place normally consecrated to shitting.
I moved to another city, where I knew few people. Here I was relieved of my habit. I did not give it up so much as it was lifted while my attention was elsewhere. I would compare it to being awakened by someone bursting a paper bag in my ear: an explosion that did no damage but for a moment stopped my heart. The prospect of unmediated life baffled me. For a while I lived low to the ground, seeing the same people night after night, eating in the same coffee shops where cigarette smoke hung blue in the air. It was only when I believed that the change might take that I called Linda. She was so happy for me. When I asked to see her, though, she became evasive. It wasn't a good time. Her voice was muffled and remote, and I was suddenly afraid that she didn't believe I'd really changed. So great was the faith I placed in her judgment that I was afraid she was right.
Perhaps two years passed before we finally met again. Somewhere during that time I learned that she'd been ill, but I didn't realize how bad it was until she sat down across from me in the café. She was barely recognizable. Even beneath the heavy coat — and the heavy sweater she wore under it, though it was early spring and no longer cold—her body looked thick and misshapen. Her face was a bloated mask, as yellow as a callus. Her folded hands were swollen as well. She was wearing dark glasses and a headband, and my initial thought was that their purpose was to conceal her disfigurement. But the headband served as a kind of truss. Without it, her cheeks and eyelids would have sagged like an old woman's. She was still in her early thirties. Her condition was called Hashimoto's thyroiditis. This is an auto- immune disease that attacks the thyroid and eventually destroys it. Symptoms include goiter, a dull facial expression, puffiness and swelling around the eyes, drooping eyelids, thinning hair, excessive fatigue, and weight gain. Her old difficulty waking up had been an early warning sign.
What bothered her most wasn't the change in her appearance. She wasn't vain that way. She hated the loss of her strength. It took her an hour to get dressed in the morning. Most days she couldn't leave the apartment by herself. She'd lie on the sofa watching sunlight circle the living room, falling onto the Oriental rug, the coffee table with its dirty saucers, the photographs on the sideboard. It got so that she could tell the time that way. I told myself that this might not be the worst impediment for a poet. I was trying to be optimistic, and my optimism had something brutal about it, as if my friend's suffering was a blank wall that I was trying to ram through.
Perhaps I was denying that the wall was in fact suffering. Suffering can be difficult to define, especially for those who stand on its other side, guessing at the feelings of the immured. Spinoza, the most precise and systematic of philosophers, defined pain as "that passion by which the mind passes to a lesser perfection"—that is, by which its powers of acting are lessened or impeded.1 Certainly, Linda was in pain. Along with disfiguring her face and body, the Hashimoto's had caused her brain to swell against her skull like the brain of someone who has been savagely beaten. It meant the end of sestinas about quantum physics; it meant the end of poetry. This was the third misfortune.
The tsunami of December 26, 2004, struck Sri Lanka with varying force and violence, depending on the affected area's distance from the epicenter of the initial earthquake, the depth of water offshore, and the presence of islands, reefs, or sandbars that might slow the wave's thundering rush toward land. Among the worst affected places was Mullaittivu, the northern stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), where three thousand people died.2 When I went there a few months later, the shore was a field of rubble extending as far as the eye could see, the rubble ground so fine that one could scarcely tell what it had once been part of. The only recognizable ruins were religious structures. Here was a kovil, or Hindu temple, with its outer walls crumpled and its courtyard strewn with debris. Nearby was a Catholic church whose canary yellow facade was virtually unscathed but whose back and side walls had been plowed away. A few hundred yards away stood an intact shrine to the Virgin Mary, every stone and seashell still in place and the Virgin's statue stationed primly in its niche, gazing skyward as if calling heaven to witness what had happened here.
What could you infer from this hierarchy of destruction? That God, or the god of the tsunami anyway, was a Catholic? Or that he preferred plaster effigies to live human beings, no matter how devout? Whoever had been inside that church when the wave crashed down on it must have been drowned or crushed, I thought. But later I learned that on December 26 the priest had chosen not to celebrate Mass at the church but at a chapel a mile inland, effectively saving his entire congregation.3
Elsewhere the tsunami had been more capricious. In the tourist towns along the Galle Road on the southwest coast, a few perfectly preserved hotels stood beside ones that had been leveled. Intact fishermen's huts rose above the splinters of their neighbors. The ATM in the bank in Ambalangoda was dispensing cash. Every so often you saw a foreigner, his skin the red of terra-cotta or a luxurious cocoa, driving by on a rented scooter. They might be relief workers or tourists. Either way, the remaining hotels would be happy to have them.
On the landward side of the highway between Bentota and Hikkaduwa were the tent villages of the relief agencies. In this more prosperous and predominantly Sinhalese part of the country, they were villages rather than cities, a testament to the speed with which aid had come from Colombo and survivors had resettled with their relatives.4 The tents were the low, teardrop-shaped kind used by alpinists and were decorated with the flags or ensigns of their donor countries, a colony of red crosses followed by a colony of blue, then yellow, then a little England where every dwelling was gaily emblazoned with the Union Jack. The tents were tiny and stifling, and their occupants preferred to spend most of their time outside them. The luckier survivors—the ones who hadn't lost everything—were already rebuilding houses along the beach, disregarding the official edict that barred construction within a hundred meters of the water. The less fortunate hunkered in whatever shade they could find.
I was with a group of Sri Lankan volunteers who were taking a census of orphans—"tsunami orphans" was the phrase everyone kept using, the way aid workers in South Africa spoke of "AIDS orphans" and the ones in Rwanda of "genocide orphans"—for a children's village that was being built nearby by a consortium of Buddhist temples. This part of Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, and temples loom over the landscape, their blinding white stupas looking like enormous bells or, if you know your iconography, the Buddha sitting in meditation. Most of the children were now staying with family members in hamlets situated a little distance from the sea. Their location had once been a sign of their poverty—anybody who had any money wanted to build by the water—but it had saved the lives of their residents.
In the hamlet of Duwa Malavenna a thin, anxious--looking woman named K. W. Lenora was living with her daughter and twin sons in a small house near a lumberyard; the whole time we were visiting, we could hear the whine of its saw. Her husband, Nishendra, had been killed in the marketplace, where he'd gone to buy a cake for the boys' twelfth birthday. His photo was displayed on a cupboard: a slight man with large ears and a severe gaze. Mrs. Lenora had placed a plate of bananas before it as an offering, as she might before the statue of the Buddha in her temple. The only other image in the house was a picture one of the boys had drawn. It was a tableau of the tsunami that showed palm trees bending and snapping and human stick figures being tossed like leaves in the wind.
The twins were named Lakmal and Dazun. They were as sleek as ferrets and at least outwardly cheerful, eager to show the visitors the new cricket bats they were pasting with decals. But I noticed how roughly Dazun played with the family dog. At one point it did something that displeased him, and he picked it up, then dropped it heavily with a smack on its bony rump. The dog shook itself and slunk from the room. I was always touched by the kindness with which Sri Lankans treat animals, especially dogs, which are so despised in other parts of Asia. Although they run more or less wild throughout the country and lie on the roads as they please, their mangy fur the color of dust, and although Sri Lankans are reckless drivers, the dogs are rarely run over.
We drove on to Pereliya. On December 26 the Sea Queen, a train carrying passengers from Galle to Colombo, had been broadsided here as it traveled on the coastal railroad, its cars swept off the tracks as if by a contemptuous hand, the tracks themselves uprooted. Fifteen hundred people had been killed, including some two hundred villagers who had clambered on board in an attempt to find shelter. Many of them had passed their children through the windows, thinking they'd be safe inside. There must have been an awful, protracted moment in which all on board watched the wave race toward them.
Three cars had been retrieved from the swamp and placed back on the tracks as a memorial. They were half-crushed, their windows shattered. As expressive as this damage was, it gave only a partial sense of what had happened here. For weeks after the catastrophe these beaches and villages had been charnel grounds. At each incoming tide the sea had spewed more bloated bodies back onshore. Everything smelled of death.
We climbed a sandy ridge and entered Totagamuwa Bridge, a hamlet of wooden houses with low thatched roofs. One house was overflowing with children minded by two middle-aged women. For the next half hour I frantically tried to write down everything the project director, a bustling entrepreneurial fellow named Dolitha told me: the kids' names—which I kept misspelling—and ages and grades in school, the names of their deceased relatives, and their relation to the grown-ups who were presenting them to us with varying degrees of pride, tenderness, and suspicion.
The child who caught my attention was a grave sixteen- year-old girl named Achini. "Child" is not what I'd call an American sixteen-year-old, for whom the word "teenager" was invented, but like many Sri Lankans, Achini seemed younger than her age, as if the carapace of young adulthood hadn't fully closed around her. Both dawn and dusk are brief in this part of the world. The sun shoots out of the sea and twelve hours later plunges back into it, and perhaps it is like that for human time as well, children bursting into young adulthood and adults falling into the pit of old age in the blink of an eye. In Sri Lanka this has less to do with latitude than with economics. How many families can afford an idle teenager? How many can pay for the medical and cosmetic truss-work that keeps Americans looking youthful into their fifties and sixties? Many of the old people I met in Sri Lanka had no teeth, or even dentures. Their collapsed profiles reminded me of the faces I'd made when I was imitating old people as a child, long before I actually saw an old person who was toothless.
Achini's mother had died in the tsunami, and she was now living with her aunt Sandiya and her children. There was a cousin her age to whom she was particularly attached. The whole time I was there, Achini held on to her arm. The sight of the two girls, both tall and slender with long necks and deep, lambent eyes, always moving in tandem, was heartrending. Their faces were as expressive as the faces in silent films. Part of what made them seem so young, I realized, was their anachronistic willingness to do what was expected of them. Docilely they greeted the visiting grown- ups, pulled out plastic stools for us to sit on, served us glasses of sweet tea. They knelt before the yellow-robed nun who had come along to comfort the grieving and touched her sandaled feet. Invited to help themselves from a box of donated clothing from the United States, they hesitated until the nun motioned them to go ahead; then they meekly sorted through the contents. I have a photograph of them holding up a pair of jeans so grotesquely huge that one girl could fit in each leg.
Dolitha signaled me to write something down. "This child's father left when she was little, and now her mother is dead, too." He lowered his voice, though it was unlikely that Achini or her relatives spoke any English. "Many people are teasing her because she is an unlucky girl."5
For a moment I thought it was a morbid joke. How do you single out the unlucky child in a village of orphans, on an entire coast of the bereaved? But I needed to accommodate a different notion of luck. Like most Americans, I think of luck as a temporary condition, a streak of wins or losses that eventually comes to an end: hence the expression "My luck ran out." This model of fortune corresponds to mathematical reality, probability theory being essentially a theory of instances, one toss of a coin or roll of the dice repeated over and over until a tendency is revealed.
But the belief that luck is temporary also reflects a democratic outlook. A lucky person is an aristocrat; an unlucky one belongs to fate's lumpen. Americans like to think of themselves as egalitarians, so we see luck as malleable and imagine that even the lowliest schmo can get lucky. It's why we idolize self-made millionaires and turn up our noses at other people's hard-luck stories. We believe that we can transform ourselves, that we can make our luck. It's the idea that motivated anyone who ever sent away for a salesman's kit or signed up for a correspondence course or decided to move halfway across the country to a place where there was no job waiting and he knew no one, but where the odds might be better. "Those who live in the midst of democratic fluctuations," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "have always before their eyes the image of chance."6
In Pereliya luck wasn't plastic, as it is in the United States. It was stone. Achini's luck was seen as part of her character, as intrinsic as courage or a quick temper. I would have liked to know when people had started calling her unlucky. Was it when her father left or only after her mother was killed, or had her unfortunate nature been recognized even in the cradle? Achini wasn't the only child I met that day whose father had abandoned her. Men left because there were no jobs or because the jobs they had, in the tourist industry especially, brought too much temptation. All along this stretch of coast I heard stories of the corrupting effects of foreign wealth and immorality on previously upright Sinhalese. There were people who thought they were the reason for the tsunami. But what bearing did that have on a modest girl who probably bathed on the shore in her sari? And why did people find her bad luck cause for scorn, as if it were a degrading vice?
Of course the very idea of luck is problematic to Buddhists. They acknowledge its existence but prefer to speak of karma, or, in Pali, the language of the first Buddhist scriptures, kamma. The word literally means "action," but in Buddhist usage it carries the connotation of deliberate action and its appropriate results, a moral quantum packet of cause and effect.7 Wholesome acts bear pleasant consequences, unwholesome acts unpleasant ones. Those consequences, of course, may not become apparent for several lifetimes. Someone withholds alms from a monk or gratuitously kills an animal, and a generation later a different iteration of the malefactor—his moral descendant—finds himself hungry and penniless or trapped in a small, bewildered body on which stronger, cleverer creatures are inflicting inexplicable torments. In this manner most of what happens to human beings can be accounted for. Nobody suffers by accident or for someone else's misbehavior: "By self alone is evil done; by self alone is one defiled; by self alone is evil not done; by self alone is one purified."8
The Western cliché about Buddhism is that it's pessimistic, but the religion's cheerful central teaching is that liberation is available to any human being at any moment. Even in the most wretched circumstances you can begin to unravel the knot of bad karma through meritorious actions that will in time secure you a better rebirth. If sufficiently motivated, you can follow the example of the Buddha and seek not just to unravel the knot but sever it, willing nothing, craving nothing, free from ignorance and suffering alike. This is what's meant by "nirvana."
But tempering that optimistic scenario is the ineluctable fact that whatever your affliction is, it has not been wrongly addressed. It is yours. You have, in a sense, sent it to yourself. Buddhism doesn't, strictly speaking, believe in a self, but that's a hard idea to wrap one's head around, and I wondered how consoling it would be to Achini. Sometime in the past she or some karmic predecessor had done something terrible, must have done so to merit this bad luck that was not luck at all. Perhaps not even that far in the past. A Sri Lankan abbot in the States had told me that one-seventh of our karma is accrued in the present lifetime. Asked what kind of karma could possibly account for the thousands of deaths in his homeland, he answered imperturbably: "All that has washed in has washed out."9
When I watched Achini, though, she didn't strike me as guilty, only as sad and anxious, clinging to her cousin's side like a beginning swimmer clinging to the side of the pool. The Buddha was practical-minded. Having identified ignorance and craving as the universal causes of suffering, he saw no need to trace its individual etiology, the path that leads from specific acts to specific misfortunes.
It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, "I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker." He would say, "I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me . . . until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short . . . until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden- colored . . . until I know his home village, town, or city . . . until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow. . . . The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him."10
Maybe my problem was that I was viewing Achini's misfortune through Western—that is, Judeo-Christian—eyes, which are so attuned to the spectrum of sin and retribution, or of weakness and testing, that they can't apprehend suffering in any other light.
* * * *
In calamity the most common question is why? Why me or why us or why them instead of us? Survivors of the South Asian tsunami were asking it even before the waters receded. The people in this part of the world are devout, and many explained the tragedy in the language of their faith. "In Muslim society, God only gives us his goodness and we have to learn lessons from a disaster like this," a man in Aceh, Indonesia, told a reporter. "This may be God saying he is angry with human conduct in the world."11 Some Sri Lankan Buddhists saw the tsunami as evidence of the primacy of dukkha, suffering or awry-ness, its imperviousness to all human attempts to ward it off. A monk cautioned, "If you think something will happen, it never will. If you think it never will happen, it will."12
"God makes the world," said a Muslim imam in devastated Hambantota. "He can give, he can take. Sometimes he gives more. Sometimes he takes."13 The Roman Catholic bishop of Kandy14 struggled with the contradiction between a God who loves mankind and a God who kills thousands of human beings in the space of a long breath: "It is a question, a problem, a mystery. Though I don't believe that God wants to destroy human life in that sense, but, biblically, also we find that along sometimes with evil people, some innocent people also perish."15 It wasn't an explanation so much as a shrug of exhaustion.
These were instances of higher religion, informed by centuries of systematic contemplation of the divine. On the ground people looked for practical reasons why the gods had chosen them or passed them over, reasons that had less to do with the gods than with their own character and actions. They weren't engaging in theology; they were making a personal reckoning with the force that had torn their lives asunder. A baker whose fourteen family members had escaped the destruction thought it was because he kept all the Buddhist precepts: not lying, stealing, drinking, philandering, or killing animals. "We earn money the correct way. That's why it didn't happen to us."16 As we went about our census work, Dolitha assured me that the wave had targeted villages of fishermen and coral divers (the latter especially suspect for the damage they inflicted on the environment), all those generations of bad karma functioning as a sort of moral lightning rod that instead of bringing down destruction from the sky called it up from the ocean. People looked for consolation. An elderly Christian named Patricia Jayasuriya had vanished when the sea foamed into her church in Hambantota, but her surviving sister was sure she'd died in a state of grace, for she had just taken Communion.17
And they looked for someone to blame. It might be the foreigners fornicating and getting high in their resorts or the locals who had begun to emulate them or an apocryphal Christian who was said to have baked a cake in the shape of the Buddha and stuck a knife in it.18 A thin, luxuriantly bearded Hindu holy man in a refugee camp in Batticaloa ticked off the responsible parties on his fingers: "People looked to different gods. Some people didn't respect their parents. If people got a job, they'd think ‘I'm a big man.' The stock of bad habits got full."19 An Achenese man named Yusmadi Sulaiman had tried to save his four-year-old son, only to watch helplessly as the child was pried from his arms and carried away by the churning waters. Now he was weeping and a visitor was patting his shoulder. " It's not your fault, it's not your fault," the visitor kept saying. Here was the immemorial division between power and affliction, authority and shame. You don't tell someone that what has happened to him is not his fault unless the suspicion has arisen—in his mind or your own—that it is.20
Similar speculation was taking place on the other side of the world, though there the tone was generally calmer. The catastrophe was far away; you could talk about it without having to hold your nose against the ripeness of the unburied dead. England's royal family heard the bishop of Norwich preach that "God has given us an Earth that lives and moves. It is not inert, it is alive—that is why we can live. Last week's events were the starkest possible reminder that what gives life can also take it away."21 Other Christian commentators shifted the emphasis from the first person of the Trinity to the second: "God does not prevent suffering but promises to redeem it. And it is this promise that we see fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."22
Although few of the speakers explicitly addressed one another's claims, you had the sense that you were listening to a debate, one whose decorum sometimes gave way to outbursts of peevishness and fist-shaking prophetic wrath. "God does not micromanage the universe," insisted a Reform rabbi in the United States, recoiling at the thought of a deity who lets small children drown before the eyes of their parents. " It's not a notion I can live with. . . . And if I need to stand here and say that I think that God does not control everything in order to clear God of such a crime, I will do so."23 This echoed an argument made years earlier by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who had lost a teenage son to a rare congenital disease: "I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason."24
The idea that God might be judged guilty of anything seemed to inflame the Baptist minister and author John Piper, who scolded an interviewer: "When I hear of a calamity like this, my deepest interpretation is God is calling John Piper to repent. God is breaking my heart. God is pointing out my sin. God is telling me, ‘Be amazed you weren't under the wave,' and so my biggest interpretation is God is calling the world to repent. We put God on trial every time something big happens, and I think what repentance would mean is that we stop making God a whipping boy and blaming him for every pain and not praising him for any pleasure."25
What lay behind the vehemence of these arguments? Elsewhere in the world some 100,000 people had died in the American occupation of Iraq. One could argue about those dead—about who had killed them and why and whether those reasons justified their deaths—but who could argue about the dead of Sri Lanka and Aceh? Unless the argument wasn't really about them but about God. Everywhere people were rushing to—in Kushner's memorable phrase—"defend [his] honor."26 It was as if the earthquake off the coast of Sumatra had opened a rift not just in the earth but in the sphere of belief, and all those priests and ministers, rabbis and imams, those paid and unpaid vendors of judgment, were scurrying to mend it, feverishly trying to stuff God back into a world that suddenly seemed empty of him.27
Chapter 1. Your Eyes Are upon Me, and I Am Not
1. Spinoza, Ethics, ed. and trans. G. H. R. Parkinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 173.
2. Fergus Shiel, “Wasted by War, Now Crushed by a Mountain of Water,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 13, 2005.
3. Paul Wiseman, “Wave Cuts Off War-Ravaged Town's Revival,” USA Today, January 2, 2005.
4. In Mullaittivu, by contrast, some twenty-two thousand refugees were sheltering in eighteen camps, and all evidence suggested that they would be there for a long time (ibid.). Sri Lanka's long civil war was temporarily in abeyance, but the Sinhalese-dominated govern- ment may still have seen Mullaittivu, most of whose inhabitants were Tamil and which was controlled by the LTTE, as enemy territory and deliberately held back aid from the town and its sur- rounding region. An alternate explanation is that it was the Tigers themselves who were impeding the flow of aid in the interest of keeping Tamils disaffected from the state. In the camps under their control, they were said to be warning residents that the food shipped from Colombo was poisoned.
5. Dolitha Ranchagoda, author interviews, Indurawa, Sri Lanka, March 4–5, 2005.
6. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (Project Gutenberg, 1997), bk. 2, chap. 19, http://www.gutenberg .org.
7. Christmas Humphreys, A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism (New York: Citadel Press, 1961), 105–6; The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the D¯i¯gha Nika¯ya, trans. Maurice Walshe (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), 34–35.
8. Dhammapada, Wisdom of the Buddha, trans. Harischandra Kavi- ratna, online ed. (Pasadena, CA: Theosophical University Press, 1980), v. 165, http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/dhamma/ dham-hp.htm.
9. Venerable Bhante Piyatissa, author interview, February 1, 2005.
10. “The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya,” in Majjhima Nikaya, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, no. 63, http://www.accesstoinsight .org/canon/sutta/majjhima/mn-063-tb0. html.
11. Eric Lichtblau and Wayne Arnold, “For Indonesian Survivors, Constant Reminders of Havoc,” New York Times, December 30, 2004.
12. Amy Waldman, “Faith Divides the Survivors and It Unites Them, Too,” New York Times, January 12, 2005.
14. Bishop Joseph Vianney Fernando, Catholic-Hierarchy.org, http:// http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/bishop/bfejv.html.
15. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, “Analysis: People of Different Faiths Interpret the Tsunami and Its Devastation in Different Ways,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, January 10, 2005.
16. Waldman, “Faith Divides.”
19. Sri Shiva Swami, author interview, Batticaloa, March 15, 2005.
20. Lichtblau and Arnold, “For Indonesian Survivors.”
21. Stephen Bates, “Religions Strive to Make Theological Sense of Disaster,” Guardian Weekly, January 7–13, 2005.
23. Hagerty, “Analysis.”
24. Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Avon, 1981), 134.
25. Hagerty, “Analysis.”
26. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen, 4.
27. Almost the same thing had happened 250 years earlier, following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, in which some 100,000 people died. It may be the only natural disaster to have played a significant role in an intellectual movement — the Enlightenment. Several thinkers, most prominently Voltaire, cited the quake as graphic evidence that human beings were not living in an orderly world ruled by a benevolent God.