The impulse to care for our own: Whenever the earth quakes, the waters rise; the winds rage – or the bombs fall – something within us is simultaneously jolted loose. We call ourselves Homo Sapiens – the man that knows. But we could just as easily (and probably with more justification) have called ourselves Homo Caritas – the man that loves.
The following essay was written on Sunday, 5 September, one day after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the city of Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island. It was published in a Special Earthquake Edition of The Press, Christchurch’s leading newspaper, on Monday, 6 September 2010. (For a more overtly political response to the Christchurch quake, see Scott Hamilton’s brilliant posting on the Reading The Maps blog.)
VAST AND SLOW are the forces that shape our world. As we human-beings flit, sometimes purposefully, more often heedlessly, across its surface, the mute miles of stone beneath our feet are driven forward, millimetre by relentless millimetre, on invisible and unfathomable tides of molten magma.
Continents move. Climates change. Plants and animals evolve. Our life-spans are too brief for our brains to acknowledge all but the most rapid changes: the transformation of our parents’ and our children’s faces; the steady growth of trees; the rise and fall of empires.
The adult May-fly, they say, lives but a single day. Measured against the finely-ground sands of geological time – we are all May-flies.
Fortunate human-beings can live their entire lives blissfully unaware of this powerful "other history" unfolding below them. There are occasional hints: ash-clouds rising from a distant volcanic peak; a harmless rocking and rolling registered through the soles of the feet. We note them in passing (the more thoughtful among us recalling geography lessons from long ago) only to resume the flitting and darting of our May-fly lives.
Except when the whole blind ballet of stone and magma comes to a halt, and upon its temporarily immovable objects a mountainous weight begins to exert an irresistible force.
Except when the slow-breathing planet, unable to exhale, coughs, the earth heaves, breaks free, and the tectonic dance resumes.
At such moments our own brief histories, and the vast, slow-moving history of the planet itself, touch one another. For a few terrifying, jack-hammering seconds we are made aware of how impossibly, overwhelmingly big and powerful is the one, and how very, very small and insignificant is the other.
All the things we like to think of as solid and dependable: the homes we live in; beloved old buildings of brick and stone; the very streets we walk on; are bent and twisted, lifted up and cast down. It’s as if the Almighty, like a surly child grown bored with his own creations, has laid them flat – just to see them fall.
Being touched in this way by what Charlton Heston, in The Ten Commandments, calls "the mighty hand of God" usually leaves human-beings feeling frightened, helpless and awe-struck.
So often nowadays we hear people using the expression "awesome" to describe what are really quite ordinary, even trivial, events. A major earthquake, however, really is awesome – something which inspires awe: that feeling of terror and insignificance we experience whenever we’re confronted by forces immeasurably greater than ourselves.
But it doesn’t last.
Homo Sapiens may only have walked upon this planet for 100,000 years, and his evolutionary forbears for less than 10 million years – a mere blink of an eye in geological time – but we are not without resources of our own.
Moving below the surface of our waking human mind is the magma of species memory and the far from mute impulses of mammalian instinct. We are, after all, the heirs of the greatest disaster to befall this planet since the cosmic collision that gave birth to the moon.
When an asteroid larger than Mt Everest smashed into the Earth’s crust 65 million years ago it wiped out 95 percent of all the animal species then living. That we are here at all is largely due to the social instincts of the family mammalia – the impulse to care for our own.
With every evolutionary leap towards specialisation and sophistication that social impulse has grown stronger. We call ourselves Homo Sapiens – the man that knows. But we could just as easily (and probably with more justification) have called ourselves Homo Caritas – the man that loves.
For whenever the earth quakes, the waters rise; the winds rage – or the bombs fall – something within us is simultaneously jolted loose. It goes by many names and takes many forms, but the word that best describes human behaviour under crisis conditions is the word our prime minister, John Key, used when asked why he’d come to Christchurch following the magnitude 7.1 earthquake which struck the city on Saturday, 4 September 2010.
He came, he said, to show "solidarity".
It’s such a good word, solidarity. Derived from the Latin solidus, meaning "the whole", it speaks of that most powerful of human instincts – the instinct of the group to draw together when threatened.
Our political and economic systems may heap rewards upon the selfish and the sly, but when disaster strikes, the overwhelming human response is to reach out, to help, to think of what best serves the interests of the whole.
Vast and slow are the forces that shape our world. When the earth heaves our first thoughts rush to the planetary forces that dwarf us. But they are not the only forces at work. Earthquakes may lay cities low – but it’s Love that rebuilds them.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Monday, 6 September 2010.