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Posts from — October 2016

Spitting at Hurricanes

Spitting at Hurricanes

We who live here in Florida recently dodged a bullet fired at us by Mother Nature. Matthew, a cat-5 hurricane that decimated poor Haiti, leaving a thousand dead, came roaring toward the Florida coast promising to unleash a cataclysm of weather after which there almost certainly would be deaths, injury, massive property damage, and widespread power outages. The governor of the state even declared, as Matthew approached, that the storm was a killer in the hope of persuading die-hards living near the ocean to evacuate. The Caribbean leading into the Atlantic and along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. is a predictable corridor for these devastating systems, so Floridians certainly are no strangers to the phenomenon, nor are we unique in this respect. Other parts of the country and the world have their own forms of exposure to the worst of the elements—earthquakes, flooding, drought, tornadoes, tsunamis, all of which demonstrate that we live at the mercy of forces far greater than we can control or even anticipate. When one of these natural disasters hits, all we can do is run for cover, hole up, wait it out, and hope for the best.

Well, that’s all we can do sanely. There is an insane alternative. We could stand outside in the murderous winds and curse Nature. We could raise our fists in protest, rail against the demons of earth and sky, even spit at them to express our frustration, helplessness, and sense of injustice in the face of such arbitrary and destructive power. Of course, spitting at a hurricane falls somewhat short of a good idea, because it amounts to spitting in one’s own face. Here, we have a metaphor that has far-reaching application in all areas of life where we find ourselves facing conditions that affect us, perhaps greatly, but about which we can do little or nothing.

The Greeks called such conditions “fate.” Nietzsche, who was well versed in the Greeks, went as far as to declare, “Amor fati”—love your fate! No mean task when you’re in your house surrounded by gale force winds, hoping some live oak won’t make an entrance through the roof. Maybe on a good day, we can accept our fate, work with it, tolerate it, meet it without resistance, which the Greeks regarded as a mark of good character. One of them, Heraclitus, states, “A man’s character is his fate,” suggesting that how we meet conditions that erupt into our lives without our permission and beyond our control actually determines what those conditions become for us. Our leverage then, lies not in the hands of fate, but in our hands. Fate may dictate what happens to us, but we get the last word. This is so important for living what the Greeks called “the good life,” that they viewed the refusal to accept one’s fate as an act of hubris before the gods, a failing of character that led ineluctably to suffering and tragedy.

Oedipus Rex, the protagonist in the play by Sophocles, is the classical embodiment of this hubris. Not knowing when to quit, he stirs up hurricanes and refuses to stop spitting at them, even when he is warned by the prophet Tiresias. As a result, the ending of the story of Oedipus is anything but a happy one. Having turned a blind eye to the prophet and the gods, unwittingly having fulfilled a fate too horrible to behold, he blinds himself physically. In this story, Sophocles is offering posterity a bit of wisdom that shows how deeply the Greeks saw into the heart of what it means to be human, to live well or badly, and the inescapable interplay of free will and fate—a timeless truth in that it is as relevant today as it was when Socrates was kicking up dust within the city wall of Athens.

Hubris is a sickness of the soul, one that shows up in the insane attempt to control what lies beyond our control, to manage what no one can manage, to dictate outcomes that are not in our hands, to go riding with saber raised into battles we cannot win. This insanity, as obvious to anyone not immersed in the Sturm und Drang of an overreaching will as would be the insanity of spitting at a hurricane, may be all but invisible to the psyche blinded by hubris.

In applying what the Greeks knew, we may benefit greatly in any situation in which we find ourselves struggling or stressed, by reminding ourselves to acknowledge what we can influence and what we can’t, what lies in our hands and what does not, what diligence requires of us and what must be left to larger forces and timings to be worked out. Accepting what we can’t change is basic sanity, something that seems to be in short supply these days. Yet the choice for sanity is there. When the winds of circumstance are blowing, shaking the rafters and threatening to tear down the house, we may find a refuge at the center of our character in relinquishing all efforts of the will and accepting things as they are for the time being. That sanity is available to us regardless of conditions, even as an eye of calm exists at the center of every hurricane, unaffected by the fury surrounding it. Adverse forces don’t last forever. When we’re already being blasted by torrential rains, spitting into the wind only makes a bad situation worse. This bit of wisdom is not limited to the weather. Sometimes the secret to getting through a tough time lies in knowing what not to do.

October 12, 2016   Comments Off on Spitting at Hurricanes