A few days ago I did a really bad thing. I was driving through the High Street of my local village when I encountered a line of traffic which required me to slow down my car to a crawl. Several cars in front of me was a hearse, and one of the undertakers was walking in front of it, slowing down the following traffic to a crawl. Even the cars travelling towards the hearse slowed to a similar speed - presumably to demonstrate their respect for the unknown deceased. Or perhaps it was an acknowledgement of the ultimate power that death holds over us, the fate that awaits us all.
It made me angry. I hate traffic delays at the best of times – there is a sense of futility that accompanies this particular curse of our age. We create highways to avoid networks of minor roads with inconvenient junctions – and then find ourselves trapped on them because they are cut off from alternative routes. We build vehicles to carry us at ever greater speeds from one place to another in our hectic world – and find ourselves driving at a walking pace for all manner of disruption.
I was already angry. I had just spent time with a member of my congregation who had been diagnosed with a secondary cancer which offered her just a 40 per cent chance of surviving beyond the next twelve months. And now here I was stuck behind this hearse, reduced to a crawl by the inevitability of death, and the respect we oblige ourselves to show it. Death and traffic: a potent combination.
So I did a terrible thing. Knowing the local roads, I took a left turn, followed by two right turns through residential streets, and arrived at the junction with the village High Street ahead of the deathly procession. I turned left and continued my journey at normal speed, feeling a mixture of triumphant exhilaration, shame and, I must confess, a little anxiety in case anyone – human or divine – had witnessed my death defying stunt. But as I drove on, I persuaded myself that what I had done was a legitimate protest against death and its pervasive power over us. The following day I told my congregant that I had done it for her: it was a metaphor for the journey that lay ahead of her as she seeks to overcome the death threat that now hangs over her.
Less than twenty-four hours later, the world in general and Japan in particular reeled under another manifestation of nature’s destructive power. I’m not suggesting that my vehicular insult to death was somehow responsible for this. But it is human nature to look for explanations for random events – and we are possessed of an arrogance that encourages us to think that if bad things happen to us, we must have done – or failed to do – something to cause them.
In older times or in more superstitious environments, people might convince themselves that the earth is angry with us. The devastation wreaked in so many different ways in recent months by nature’s fury might persuade those who believe in such things that powerful inanimate forces are deliberately assaulting a vulnerable and arrogant humankind. In the last twelve months we have seen volcanoes, floods and earthquakes that should, at the very least, remind us of our frailty. And now, in Japan, we see not only nature’s power, but also the threat she poses to our attempts to harness that power, as the earthquake threatens to unleash deadly radiation from a damaged nuclear power plant at Fukushima.
The earth, and the forces of nature that sustain it and us, definitely seem to be angry with us. But what should be our attitude to the apparent increase in nature's bursts of temper, expressed as tornadoes, earthquakes or cancers? Should we fall into line and march slowly and humbly behind death’s inevitability, simply waiting our turn? Or is there another approach?
The recent and seemingly ever more frequent manifestations of nature’s destructive power suggest that a little humility and respect for our planet might not go amiss. If she is angry with us, then we ought indeed to consider what we have done to upset her, and promise to treat her more thoughtfully – reverentially even – in the future. But this does not require us to bow our heads and surrender fearfully to the unavoidable reality that our lives shall, one day, be ended by nature’s structures and strictures. We should seek to defy death, not surrender to it. Our dedication to life is demonstrated by the recent custom of a minute’s applause replacing silence at memorials for well-loved individuals. Or, to put it another way, we should seek whatever routes we can to place ourselves ahead of death rather than crawling subserviently along in its wake.