When Nature Betrays Us

Human beings crave predictability. And by and large, as regards the natural world, we have it.

Life as we know it is the byproduct of thousands of utterly dependable actions, many of which take place on a daily basis within our bodies, and others of which occur in the larger world all around us.

Think for a moment of the intricacies of the human body -– the valves, veins, arteries, muscles and ligaments, the joints, the brain and central nervous system, and of course the heart itself. All of these must work in perfect concert for us to perform even the most prosaic actions –- take a step, utter a word, play with a baby. These actions are what we often call “second-nature;” we give them no thought at all before performing them, unless there is some impediment in the system. If your knees hurt, you’ll think about how to stand up from a low couch or chair. If your heart is weak, chances are good that you won’t undertake any kind of exercise that puts you at risk.

At the most fundamental of levels, the fact that we go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning is, arguably, the greatest, most dependable miracle of all– until it’s not. Each and every night, we recite the “Hashkiveinu,” a prayer in which we implore God to lay us down to sleep in peace, and enable us to rise up again to life the following morning. The religious person sees every day as a new miracle, a gift from God that dare not be taken for granted.

The truth is, of course, that the “normal working” of the world around us is also the byproduct of thousands of utterly dependable actions that take place on a daily basis. We can pretty much count on the fact that November through March will be much colder than April through October, that the days will be longer in the summer than in the winter, that salmon will swim upstream to spawn and babies and puppies will be adorable.

Sometimes, though, the assumptions on which we base our collective ability to sleep at night are thrown a proverbial curve ball by nature. We get not what we expect, but rather what is least expected. We humans really don’t like when that happens. It throws us off our game, and causes all kinds of existential angst. What does it mean when we can no longer depend with certainty on the things that we were always certain of?

As I’ve said many times in many different ways, those who find themselves suddenly confronting a life-threatening illness when the day before they felt fine are all too familiar with what it means to lose the ability to bank on “sure things.” All of a sudden we have newfound insight into how precious every moment is, and how each and every day needs to be understood as a precious opportunity to be with those we love.

What the events of this past week have shown us -– more specifically, the horrific assault of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath -– is that nothing in nature is an absolutely sure thing. Yes, hurricanes of such destructive power are supposed to be a regular part of life in southern Florida, but with the right combination of circumstances, the northeast, as we have painfully learned, can be every bit as vulnerable as Miami Beach and Boca Raton. Saying that something happens “rarely” is not at all the same as saying that it “never” happens. “Never” is a very dangerous word to use when talking about nature. There are lots of things that are never supposed to happen– but sometimes they do. And when they do, we are left with very little choice but to survive and adapt to new realities that are less of a sure thing than the ones that preceded them.

All of this is, of course, extremely unsettling. Living through Sandy was terrifying. But the existential dimensions of such a cataclysmic meteorological event have to be considered secondary to the enormous human suffering that Sandy has caused. The part of New York City that I live in escaped relatively unscathed, largely because we are not a low-lying area near the coastline. But I have spent the better part of the past few days speaking with colleagues in Long Island and New Jersey whose lives, careers, and property have been turned upside down and inside out by this storm. The scope of the damage is almost inconceivable, to the extent that one might fairly and rationally question whether, despite the encouraging words of government officials, rebuilding to the status quo ante is any kind of realistic possibility.

But then again, this is New York. We’re tough. And so is Gov. Chris Christie, and so are the people of New Jersey.

I remember distinctly looking at the smoldering pile of rubble that was the World Trade Center and wondering to myself if life as I knew it had ended. How could anyone, or any group of even the most dedicated first responders and volunteers, possibly clean that site up? How could New York possibly rebuild after such a terrible physical blow, not to mention the subversion of all our pre-existing psychic assumptions about predictability, threat, and safety?

But we did. Somehow we did, and somehow we will again. For now, the task is to summon the wherewithal to help those who have been most damaged, to support those who are in need, and to appreciate anew the true “nature of nature.” There is nothing more dangerous, either physically or spiritually, than taking something for granted. The world is full of unanticipated surprises, some wonderful, some very much not. May there be more of the former than the latter …

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.