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Guest Thinkers

Storm to City: It’s Not About You

Delusions of control seem built into the human mind, even when they aren’t comforting. More than a few people, for example, would prefer to think hurricanes are punishments for abortions than to think catastrophes happen for reasons that have nothing to do with us. Secular people like me, who don’t believe in a controlling deity, put faith instead in their own controlling intelligence—that combination of technology and willpower that convinces people fate is always in their own hands. Find the right finance guru, and your investments would pay off; find the right personal guru, and you’d have the life you want. Because it’s all up to me. I’m in charge of my own life.

Many cultures offer a variety of traditional practices to remind people that this is ridiculous. Monotheistic religions proverbially tell believers they can’t know the thoughts of the deity (“we’ll be there Tuesday, Godwilling”); and the Buddhist aphorism that “mind makes world” reminds you that you have sway over your reactions to events, not the events themselves.

But, trust me, an even better antidote is having a big honking tornado (or something very close) rip through your neighborhood. Yesterday I watched a tree bang on my window as if it was panicked to be stuck outside, and then walked through a streetscape of broken branches, a couple of shattered store windows, and at least one smashed car. That was ten minutes in a few neighborhoods of the city. When a hurricane hits New York City, we’ll be toast.

People have been congratulating themselves on how well they run the Earth for more than 2000 years (search the word “wonderful” on this page for an example). Yesterday I and my neighbors were reminded that we reign over the world like a spider reigns over a bathtub drain.

I’m fine with living as if we’ve mastered the universe. Not knowing the future, what alternatives are there? (As the New York hurricane can’t be predicted, I can’t do much to avoid it, and, anyway, God willing, I could end up missing it). I just think the culture in which I live, stripped of traditional reminders that as if isn’t is, has lost a helpful form of human wisdom. (For ideas about the consequences thereof, try here and here. For the more practical among us, there’s always bottling some water and having a plan.)


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