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Out of our depth

Images of Melbourne mourners by Mathias Heng.In our January issue, we wrote facetiously about tsunamis. Whenwe went to press before Christmas the comment was mildly funny. By the time you received Eureka Street in late December, it was in deplorable taste. A small but emblematic instance of the difference made by one wave that turned life into death, struggle into defeat, and ordinary states of mind into unimaginable grief.

To speak decently of the tsunami continues to be difficult. Not merely because it is hard to find words that fit, but because when we speak of it, we say more about ourselves than of the event. The tsunami measures our words and our hearts.

Sometimes they are found wanting. Calculations of how the tsunami and reconstruction might affect the stock market, for example, of its effect on various Islamic groups, and of how aid might be tailored to Australia’s strategic interests say more of what has been washed away in the writer’s heart than on the shore. Exclusive grief for Australian victims and exclusive adulation of Australians who did what common humanity required of them also disclose smallness of soul and not the greatness of the disaster.

Sometimes, though, proper things are said–more often in human lives and gestures than through words. Images of people who have lost everything, themselves lost in grief, caring for others, clawing their way back to life, speak deeply to us.

Among Australians, as elsewhere in the world, generosity and compassion have also found silent words. At the most basic level many have simply allowed the tsunami to enter their imagination, perhaps enjoying the beach with their families while grieving compassionately with those for whom the sea became an enemy. Some have put their gifts and their wealth unnoticed at the service of those affected by the tsunami. Helpful words have been modest: they tell stories, like that of the medical student who, spared by the waves, offered her skills to help identify those taken.

In Australia, too, the Government has spoken powerfully through large gestures. Mr Howard and Mr Downer, in particular, have responded with exemplary leadership, generosity and sensitivity. If the less-publicised needs of others who make a claim on us were handled in this way, we would indeed be a fortunate society.

Images of Melbourne mourners by Mathias Heng.Among the questionable words spoken about the tsunami were comments about God’s part in it. When we mention God and the tsunami in the one breath, either to assert or to deny God’s providence, we are touching the most profound meaning of the event. In doing so, we may say something illuminating about God; we shall certainly reveal ourselves and our capacity to touch depths. To throw God into conversation in order to stir controversy, to use massive human suffering as a pawn in theoretical debate to entrench or remove God from the board, or to use the tsunami as an improving story to encourage virtuous living, would convict us of shallowness and frivolity.

That is why the most prudent religious leaders recommended that we first focus on those whose lives were destroyed by the tsunami, and only later muse about God’s stake in it. Their advice was sensible because, when we respond to human suffering, practical generosity has precedence over theoretical reflection. It intimated also that we can speak of the deep meaning of the tsunami only after we have allowed its uncontrollable destruction into our mind and heart, and embraced its victims in compassion and in solidarity. In the meantime, we may find stumbling and forgettable words to console one another. But deep words can come only from hearts and minds exposed to the depths.

Andrew Hamilton sj is Eureka Street’s publisher.

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