Weather conditions have flitted madly from one extreme to another in recent times. We had Hurricane Ophelia last October. The Beast from the East brought snow and ice to most parts of the country in March, followed by Storm Emma. And of course, this summer beat all records for heat, which while extremely pleasant in one way, has serious consequences as well. Neither grass nor crops grew as they should, aside from maize, which grew to unprecedented heights.
And it is not just Ireland. German astronaut, Alexander Gertz, recently posted photos taken from space of his native Germany. The earth is parched, cracked and brown. He also showed Portugal, saying that it looked on that day like a mixture of ‘dust, sand and smoke’ ( https://bit.ly/2vGPCUx).
Some people think God is trying to send us a message. Perhaps, but I do not think it is a message of doom or punishment.
Modern people live encapsulated lives, cocooned from reality a great deal of the time. As T.S. Eliot put it in Four Quartets, ‘humankind cannot bear much reality’.
Eliot wrote long before the advent of screens that fit in our pockets that monopolise our attention. But he still knew the reality of distraction. In fact, another quote from Four Quartets could have been written about our age:
Only a flicker Over the strained time-ridden faces Distracted from distraction by distraction Filled with fancies and empty of meaning Tumid apathy with no concentration.
‘Tumid’ means swollen, or alternatively, pompous and bombastic. Either way, ‘tumid apathy with no concentration’ does sum up the tenor of many of our interactions on social media, as does ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. The amount of mindless surfing that is possible in a half-hour is distressing, as we follow the crumb-trail enticing us to click from page to page.
Many parents have been troubled by the amount of time that their children and teenagers spend on the game, Fortnite, Battle Royale, which is a multi-player shooter with bright, cartoon-like graphics. Nir Eyal, best-selling author of ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products’ has a very insightful article about Fortnite on his blog. https://bit.ly/2MhGfEt
He says gaming is only a worry when children (or adults) resort to it to meet unmet needs. He defines these needs as the need for ‘competence — the need for mastery, progression, achievement, and growth. We need autonomy — the need for volition and freedom of control over our choice. And finally, we strive for relatedness — the need to feel like we matter to others and that others matter to us. Unfortunately, when considering the state of modern childhood, many kids aren’t getting enough of these three essential elements.’
This is very challenging for parents because it means really thinking about how to meet those needs. But adults often indulge in unhealthy pursuits, too, whether it be too much television, alcohol, or mindless internet-surfing.
Not to mention the anger, the roasting of others who dare to have thoughts different to us, that anonymity seems to let loose in us. Certainly, there is much that is positive about the internet, too. Skype calls to children far away and instantaneous access to information are great gifts.
But as Eliot’s poem shows, there is something in the human character that distracts us constantly from what is really important. We are also distracted from the reality of the earth, from the fact that our food comes not from supermarkets but from the ground, greenhouses and a great deal of labour.
Extreme weather wakes us up from our extreme apathy. Water shortages teach us to value water, to treasure it like the life-giving miracle that it is. It can teach us to be better stewards of the environment that we so often take for granted, until something like an astronaut taking pictures from space forces us to see it with new eyes.
I don’t think God is sending us a message in the sense of engineering extreme weather in order to prod us to pay attention. But the weather can remind us of a reality – that we are fragile and short-lived beings and that any illusion that we are in control of our destinies is just that – an illusion.
None of us like that reality. In fact, it could be recipe for despair if there were not another side to that equation. As weak and fragile as we are, as seemingly inconsequential, we are deeply and profoundly loved by God from before the moment we are conceived.
Now, plumbing the depths of that extraordinary claim really could take us a lifetime. As TS Eliot said at the end of Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.