MANKIND ON THE BEACH
Last night I awoke at two AM, disturbed. I remembered the terrible earthquake the day after Christmas in 2004. It occurred off the coast of Sumatra and its immense power triggered a tsunami that struck Banda Aceh in Indonesia among many other places all around the Pacific Rim. The earthquake was one of the largest even recorded and the tsunami in some places was reported to be 100 feet high, a mass of water almost impossible to imagine.
What surfaced in my memory was a video I had seen at the time. It was taken from the fifth floor of a resort hotel on the coast in Banda Aceh that allowed the camera to focus both on the beach and the offshore water. The water in the bay had nearly emptied and many on the beach realized that this phenomenon preceded a tsunami and began running to higher ground. From this vantage point, you could see a white line on the horizon quite far off shore. One man stood alone and motionless on the beach apparently almost hypnotized by what he was looking at. As the wave approached the beach, it seemed to gain both in speed and height so that it appeared perhaps sixty or seventy feet high and to be moving around forty miles per hour. As the wave came onshore, the man, apparently unable to comprehend what he was looking at, never moved. The wave approached inexorably and he vanished like a fly swept into a vacuum, or a rabbit hit by a truck on the highway. There. Then gone.
We are, while I write this, in the midst of the Covid 19 virus pandemic, a tsunami of a sort affecting the entire globe unevenly, but frighteningly. I attended medical school and have been aware since then of the risk of a pandemic of some sort for many years, although I have no special training in infectious disease. Many others have also been far more precisely aware the risks, and the likelihood, of a pandemic than I have been. Both scientists and science fiction writers have outlined not only the risks of a pandemic, but the high likelihood of one occurring sooner or later. The reasons are straightforward and appeal to common sense: when a large number of organisms live in close proximity, diseases can spread rapidly from one individual to the next. Some of us remember “mono,” the kissing disease. Pandemics do not need to rely on such intimacies when they spread by tiny droplets of fluid, such as in sneezing. There have been a surprising number of pandemics in the past several years: ebola, H1N1, Swine Flu, MERS, SARS. While these all caused considerable damage, along with the almost yearly scourge of influenza. In spite of this, the human population around the world, and most surprisingly in the US, has done little to make thorough preparations to cope with a serious pandemic. We are in the midst of one now and are trying to “catch up,” a disastrous strategy. The most efficacious position to combat a pandemic spread of a highly contagious germ, is to be well in front of the spread so as to do everything possible to limit its movement through the population.
Yet none of this was what most disturbed my sleep. The tsunami was what I found myself thinking of, and of the human race itself being like the poor immobilized man on the beach in Banda Aceh almost sixteen years ago. I was thinking of the horrifying despoiling of the environment, extinguishing species faster than we can keep track, spoiling access to fresh water, killing whales, coral, fish, and much more. Air quality has slightly improved with this pandemic since there is around 50 % less road traffic than prior to the pandemic, allowing us to remember, vaguely, what we’ve allowed ourselves to lose. Polar ice, and the beautiful bears it supports, is melting. Many scientists believe environmental degradation is precisely what makes today’s emergency more likely, both this one we are living through now, and future emergencies like huge and destructive storms, fires, crop failures, social deterioration, and many other things we might worry about. The wave is on the horizon and it behooves us all to get off the beach.
The capacity to see out to the horizon, and perhaps even beyond the horizon, we might call “wisdom.” Wisdom, at least as I’m thinking of it in this context, means a capacity to see into the future, to anticipate those things we may have to cope with that may not be fully evident to us in the present. It is often a quality we associate with age and experience. In Wikipedia, someone defined wisdom as follows:
Wisdom, sapience, or sagacity is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight. Wisdom is associated with attributes such as
unbiased judgment, compassion, experiential self-knowledge, self-transcendence and non-attachment, and virtues such as ethics and benevolence
To some degree, this definition, along with most others I looked for has a tautological quality; wisdom is… well, being smart about stuff, or is just good judgment. That’s fine, but couldn’t we be more precise? I think so. Suppose we were to propose the asymptote, that is, the unreachable apogee of wisdom: perfect wisdom. Sometimes trying to imagine perfection helps refine what we might understand to be possible in the real world even though we understand we will not achieve perfection itself. Perfect wisdom might then mean perfect foresight. Our man on the beach would understand at once, perhaps even as soon as he had an awareness of the earthquake, or certainly when the water receded from the beach, that a killer tsunami was likely. We understand that no one possesses a full repertoire of such wisdom, but we might still wish for it.
Before we abandon our poor paralyzed man on that beach, we might well inquire what kept him there. We will never know, of course, but I suspect we would be wise ourselves to empathize with him. Our temptation will be to condemn him as a fool unable to appreciate his peril and comfortably presume we would have run to safety. But can we be so sure? Everyday life, probably for most of us, is filled with regrettable judgments, bad calls, and foolish choices. The fortunate (or perhaps the wisest) among us may have fewer mistakes in their histories, but very few indeed are free to say we made no foolish choices. I escaped horrible misfortune when I was nineteen and a student in Paris for a semester of study abroad. Friends I esteemed had decided to experiment with heroin and had invited me to join them. Their invitation pleased me because I wanted inclusion in their circle. At the appointed time, I arrived at their flat, but filled with vague uneasiness, I told them I had an engagement and could not stay. While I’d prefer to say I was wise, it is not the case. I was simply scared, not because I was well informed about the risks of heroin about which I knew very little, but simply because I felt intimidated by their precocity. A whiff of anxiety should not be confused with wisdom. Neither should it be dismissed.
It seems very likely our poor man was mystified by everything he was experiencing that day and felt disoriented. In such states many of us, perhaps most of us, are likely to freeze while we try to discover what is happening. Prey animals do this as a matter of course. Deer, sensing a predator, stop, listen, and sniff the air. Rabbits freeze before flight. Anxiety must constantly be distinguished from fear. Anxiety is fear’s first cousin, the same signal, but without that actual fact of threat. Anxiety says, “Check!” while fear says “Act!” Anxiety is a false alarm. Fear is a real alarm. This distinction in everyday life may prove very challenging. And, of course, proximate threat has far greater power to influence us than any worries about the future.
Perhaps our man was trying to decide which applied that afternoon. Perhaps from his perspective whatever threat there might be was too far into the future for him to act. Perhaps he was standing and checking just when he should have been feeling fear.
Since reactions to genuine threat often require great expenditures of energy, it is best not to be too anxious. Fleeing from every shadow is exhausting and stresses the body badly over time. Anxiety disorders are among the most common concerns in psychiatry. Too much anxiety is troublesome. So is too little. I was fortunate to be rescued by my anxiety in Paris so many years ago. We should note that both of these states refer to feeling states. Feelings, whether of fear or of anxiety, or something else are not judgments. They are not thorough or careful assessments. They are instinctive assessments that arise from an entirely different part of the brain than careful assessments do. They are subject to error, occasionally wildly misrepresenting the risks in current circumstances. Anxiety does so often, exaggerating dangers and provoking unnecessary apprehensions.
Wisdom, on the other hand, reflects concerns about the future, sometimes in the remote future, that accurately appreciates genuine risks. If only our poor man on the beach could have seen to the horizon, or even beyond it to allow him some means to insure his safety, then his terrible death could have been avoided.
So might we now not collectively see beyond the horizons of our daily lives sufficiently into our future while we have the time to evacuate our own beaches? We have far more than enough sturdy information to know that our children and grandchildren’s lives are certain to be profoundly affected by changes in the earth’s climate, yet we, too, stare out to sea wondering just what we are looking at. God forbid we remain long enough to be hit, or to see our children and their children hit by the wave now on the horizon. What paralyzes us? Partially, we, like our man, are having trouble truly appreciating what is approaching. We look, but do not quite comprehend. And, of course, we do not entirely wish to comprehend. What troubles we have to deal with if that wave is real! A teenager I once reproached for smoking a cigarette, lightly dismissed my concern by saying, “Well, this cigarette isn’t going to kill me.” So why preoccupy ourselves with the distant future? Because that is precisely what wisdom consists of. Distant events rarely provoke strong feelings. Few of us are likely to feel fear about the environmental future of our world, but many more of us are in a position to know we will soon face enormous peril.
At this point, we cannot but consider the immense importance of leadership. For centuries, leadership has born the responsibility of orienting public awareness to the circumstances of community life. Perhaps this was relatively uncomplicated when tribal life limited exposure to the radius of 15 or 20 miles. Today, leadership requires the capacity to see beyond the immediate horizon into the relatively distant future before the wave over that horizon comes roaring ashore, striking us before we can act. And seeing into the future is insufficient. Leadership requires communicating to the majority of us that what has been foreseen truly matters. It matters enough to require sacrifice in the present. This requires something sadly hard to locate in our contemporary world: wise and powerful leadership.