A Course in Calamities

Before I begin, I note that my Google calendar tells me I have a pre-procedure check-in at CHI St. Vincent tomorrow morning. The procedure, a cystoscopy and biopsy of the lining of the bladder, under general anesthesia, takes place next Monday at 5:30 a.m.  I may decide not to write much, if anything, for a while. Or I may continue without interruption. Regardless of the findings from the procedure, I consider the process at least a minor calamity.


All right. Here we are at July 1, halfway through a year engaged in a competition to be named “Most Miserable Stretch of Time in the History of the Planet,” yet we struggle on. I suppose we know, in our hearts, that 2020 will not win. In spite of the Australian and Amazon wildfires, the ongoing pandemic, and the rampant racism and police brutality playing out on television, 2020 has failed thus far to equal the most brutal periods of time on planet Earth. Even the thoroughly incompetent and deeply dangerous dimwit in the White House, ripping the U.S. economy (and its moral standing) into tattered and torn shreds and taking the world’s economy into the sewer with it, has failed to push us forward to merit a win in the abominable competition.

Unless the remainder of the year brings with it pestilence and calamity several orders of magnitude worse than what we have experienced so far in 2020, this year can hope for, at best, a “seventy-fifth runner-up” ribbon. The years of the Irish Potato Famine would take a higher prize, as would each year between 1861 and 1865. And, of course, 1914 through 1918  and their younger siblings, 1939 through 1945, claim more prestigious ribbons. The year 1968 might do the same. There are dozens more. Maybe hundreds. The point is, in the vernacular, “you don’t even know what calamity looks like!” That is not to mock our pain (though it sure sounds like mockery, doesn’t it?), only to put it in perspective. And, by the way, I’m straying beyond the borders of the modern-day U.S.A. only a little, offering evidence of the provincial nature of my formal education.

But consider, for example, how awful the year 79 A.D. was for Pompeiians living in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Geologists say the volcano could erupt again in an unprecedented explosion any day; millions could perish in such an event, which could quickly propel the year of eruption beyond many other ribbon-holder years.

The winner of each competition thus far has been, and remains, the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, that cataclysmic reordering of the planet’s priorities that followed the moment the Chicxulub impactor struck off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Geophysicists and their scientific brethren say the asteroid could have been as big as fifty miles in diameter when it struck Earth. The poor dinosaurs did not have a chance.

With the exception of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, all of the events I have mentioned were catastrophic simply because human suffering factored into them. What about the miseries suffered by other creatures? Does our empathy and compassion extend beyond the pets we coerce into depending on us for food and shelter? (Have you noticed a change in tone?) I’ll stick to human tragedies for the time-being, nonetheless.

Calamities and catastrophes and cataclysmic events occur at various scales. While death and suffering involving hundreds or thousands or millions is stunning in its scope, individual death and suffering is equally momentous to those most directly affected. When examining calamities on an individual basis, the loss of a parent or spouse or sibling or close friend is apt to be more devastating than the loss of a job or the assassination of a world leader. Yet we seem to measure the size and extent of horror based on volume, either of victims or of spectators. Even though we are emotionally crushed—with far greater personal consequences—by the death of a loved one, that earth-shattering occurrence is not judged by others to be as brutal and difficult as a flood that takes the lives of hundreds of strangers.

I understand all of this, of course. I comprehend the difference between the impact of an individual death and the emotional consequences of massive loss of human life. Because we are, indeed, all interconnected, rips in the fabric of our lives cause us pain, but those interruptions in the cloth have different effects on us, depending on the proximity of those jagged lacerations to our emotional core.

Calamities come in all forms, in all sizes and shapes. Regardless of their size or source, they transform us, either individually or collectively or both. Our private and personal calamities are, perhaps, the most impactful; they are the ones that alter the course of our existence more immediately and more deeply than distant, impersonal calamities. Yet, as philosophers and poets and deep thinkers over the millennia have suggested, each of us humans is simply a tiny cell in a much larger creature; were they thinking of us as cells of a parasite? Probably not, but maybe.

We hope to avoid catastrophic changes in our lives, upsets that upend the serenity we so fervently seek. But life can change, or disappear, in an instant. Our control is limited by circumstances. Everything we think and everything we do relies on context; when context refuses to adhere to our wishes, we must simply ride the waves and hope we do not drown.

John Donne wrote Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII, from which his famous poem emerged and was claimed by the world. His words, taken from a paragraph of free verse, (modernized in spelling, below) and immortalized were:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

To serve as a resource for myself, I will reproduce the Meditation XVII in full below:

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.  The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest.  If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is.  The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.  Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises?  But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings?  But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.  Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.  No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.  If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels.  Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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1 Response to A Course in Calamities

  1. Jim says:

    Best of luck, Mr. Swinburn!

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