Monday, August 22, 2011

Pride and Humility

There are certain moments in human history that resonate far beyond their due. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 are but a few examples that come to mind. It's not that these events are not significant, nor tragic, but just that they seem to reverberate within our social psyche far beyond what we would expect.

Looking at the Titanic, it is certainly easy to understand why. The ship was supposed to be, in a sense, man's triumph over nature. People felt we had finally built a boat that could not be sunk. We, as a people, were so confident in this that the captain, himself, is reputed to have said, "Even God cannot sink this ship." It was, in short, a boast that spoke of our confidence in our human abilities, while overlooking our dependency upon our Creator.

As Abdu'l-Baha said, "God has endowed man with intelligence so that he may safeguard and protect himself. Therefore, he must provide and surround himself with all that scientific skill can produce. He must be deliberate, thoughtful and thorough in his purposes, build the best ship and provide the most experienced captain; yet, withal, let him rely upon God and consider God as the one Keeper."

While the disaster of the Titanic, in hindsight, was the result of shoddy workmanship, underplanning, and other such human faults, it was still a stark reminder that we are never as far beyond nature as we may like. And even though the number of people killed, just over 1500, was not all that large in terms of disasters in history, it was the psychological impact upon humanity that has made it the epic disaster that it was.

Another example of this type of psychological trauma was 9-11. Again, in terms of human lives lost, while numerous and very tragic, it wasn't all that large a number. More people were dying daily due to starvation and lack of clean drinking water. But it was the effect of the attacks that made it so grievous.

From what I can tell, there were two different things that happened that day that caused this. The first was that it shattered the belief that the United States, or North America, was invulnerable to attack on domestic soil. The other was that it made a strong statement on the fragility of the economic situation of the world.

In terms of the first, there were only a few other times that attacks occurred on US soil, against the US itself. While the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War come to mind, as well as Pearl Harbour, 9-11 was far more "at home" for most of us. There was no escaping it. It happened right there, in a big city, today. It was not fast on the heels of the Revolutionary War, in some distant outpost, or a remote island that wasn't even an actual state yet. This was more immediate.

Shortly after those attacks that launched the "war on terrorism", people all over the States were watching the skies with a bit of fear or trepidation. I remember getting off the train in Chicago a few months later and watching as people, myself included, glanced up at the Sears Tower, obviously checking to see if any unscheduled planes were heading towards it. And this just speaks of the physical attack on the Towers.

In terms of the psychological effect, I look at what the World Trade Centre signified for many of my generation. It was symbol of the unassailable wealth of the country, of the very ideology of the country. It was as a result of the attacks of that day that the US launched its so-called war on terror, the war that undermined the wealth of that great nation.

As a Baha'i I was well aware of the statements in the Writings about how this seeming supremacy would not last, and I often wondered what would precipitate the collapse of the system, but it wasn't until that morning, watching the videos of those planes colliding and the buildings falling, that I began to see how it would inevitably happen.

Both of these incidents, the Titanic and 9-11, remind me of the story of the Tower of Babel. They all are firmly embedded in the psyche of our people, and they all tell of the effects of forgetting our humility, a word which has the same root as the very word "human".

"Pride not yourselves in your glory," says Baha'u'llah, "and be not ashamed of abasement." He also reminds us that "Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power, whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation."

But not all events that are firmly fixed in the collective memory of humanity are of a negative nature. You only need to ask those who were alive at the time where they were when the first people walked on the moon to realize it.

No comments:

Post a Comment