“Teach us the names of what we have destroyed.” — Dana Gioia, “A California Requiem”
The world is bleeding. By some accounts, at the rate of more than 70,000 barrels a day. The crude inner currents of the earth have no mercy because, simply put, they were shown none. Man’s inhumanity to man, which spilled over, time and again, into the oceans and the air, now stains the land. Again.
We cannot make it stop. The most powerful nation on earth is powerless. One of the most lucrative industries in history is reduced to meager measures. These, not before a military force, not in the face of an alien invader, nor before a rogue state … but before forces that were well-established and churning long before we saw the light of our first day.
Our rush to acquire
The Gulf of Mexico is showing us in a symbolic way the truth of what we have been doing to ourselves for centuries. We are hemorrhaging our identity. What took place in the gulf is clear enough: The meaning of personhood today has dwindled to one who can acquire pleasure quickly.
To be real and feel worthwhile means to earn triple what our parents made in half the time; to race from our town home to our shore house; to insist our stocks defy gravity; to have the trophy kids whose teeth are as straight as their A’s; for everything we touch to gush with status.
And we drill for each thing until we get it in spades. And we leave many in our wake. The entitlement race of the postmodern era is once again outdone only by the pervasive craving for immediate attention of a society infatuated with itself.
Oil greases the wheels in that race: of our cars, assembly lines and wallets. Our rush to acquire more and more pleasure and things needed more and more energy. And we turned further and further away from natural processes. We sped past the local store until it was history. We left the family farm in the dust. We treated the world as if it were a bottomless pit to fuel our insatiable appetite for acquiring pleasure quickly. We attempted to possess the world as if its resources were meant simply to feed our demands. We lost the stewardship dominion promised by Genesis and possessively sought to seize what could only be received as a gift.
The executives allegedly ignored the trustworthy steps to responsible drilling. Apparently they bypassed natural and time-honored safety measures. Were safety valves or stopgap measures, costly and slow, trumped by profit and speed? The higher-ups seemed to treat the earth like a thing to be used and thrown away. If one bypasses common sense and the proper nature of things … it is then the very nature of nature to offer the insistent reminder in no uncertain terms. We have been reminded.
The world is bleeding. And we cannot make it stop. We cannot talk it away, collaborate it away, spend it away, protest it away, blame it away, speech it away, litigate it away, or explain it away. It keeps coming, as will the hearings, the testimonies, lawsuits, and the claims and counterclaims of one agency after another.
Beneath it all, the gushing flow has turned the tide. We pierced the earth in a dishonorable, selfish way one time too many. It is as if nature has had enough. It is as if nature is now showing to us, as in a mirror, what we have done to it for decades. More, it is showing us what we have been doing to ourselves for centuries. As Pope Benedict XVI emphasized in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate : “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its lifestyle, which in many parts of the world is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new lifestyles ‘in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments’” (No. 51).
A clouded underlying system of morality has bubbled to the surface. One cannot help but wonder if the popular and appropriate outcry for stewardship of the environment also taps into and carries, as if a relief-well, the burden of crushing, long-buried, unrefined guilt before the mainstream evils that course accepted through the currents of society. The stain off our shores that we cannot now ignore is a metaphor for the hemorrhaging to which so many chose to close their eyes.
What we have been doing to the ocean floor, we have been doing to the human person far longer, especially to human life in its weakest moments: the child in the womb and the human person approaching the end of life. Our latest attempt to drain the human person of meaning is the contemporary denial that attempts to erode the classical and timeless truth that marriage is and can only be the permanent, faithful and fruitful union of one man and one woman.
We deplete the meaning of humanity when we turn away from the hungry and the poor, the refugee and the immigrant, the worker, victims of endemic disease, and the call to love our enemies rather than war with them. Notice, even the futile attempt to heal the scar in the earth repeated the violence that caused it: “Top Kill.” So often the default is as bad as the fault.
Closing the gulf of sin
Nature, in the end, always reminds us that there is an objective order. When we violate that order, nature, sooner rather than later, will rise up. It will remind us that our actions have a meaning in themselves that far outstrips our intentions, that what we do has effects, and how we happen to think of those effects won’t stop or convert them. The proclaimed “good” intentions of BP, the federal government or the energy lobby are irrelevant to nature. Where were these “good” intentions of agency and government years ago in regard to those who made their living treating the gulf with honor and respect? Did costs and profits outweigh life? Oil draws blood, and, it would seem, not for the first time.
The drill has scarred not simply the ocean floor, but the hearts of generations. Intentions, to a large degree, caused the hole. They cannot, therefore, plug the hole. If only we could lift the stonewalling from the hearing room and drop it in the severed earth. Attempts to submerge one’s actions in slick rhetoric, so that they somehow come out a wash, fall limp. Nature insists: Actions tell the truth. Intentions and excuses can only blush.
There is only one way forward. Our tears must be as plentiful as the oil. They must, in fact, be more so. Drop by drop they must heal the hole. The wound in our heart that leads the drive to acquire pleasure quickly must be healed if we are ever to truly plug the hole that yawns and gapes like Marley’s ghost in the ocean floor. In fact, if we fix the hole in the earth without healing the one in our heart we will simply keep opening old wounds.
There is only one way to heal the hole in our heart. It is to stand under the pressure of the pelting surge that clouds our moral vision and act for the truth that the meaning of being a human person has nothing to do with acquiring pleasure quickly. We are not meant to acquire … we are meant to give; we are not meant to acquire pleasure … we are meant to give beauty … we are not meant to acquire pleasure quickly … we are meant to give beauty slowly.
We learn this strength not from a pundit, PR campaign, the next news conference or press release. We must drill deep into the Sermon on the Mount in order to unearth heaven. This persistence is learned only by standing near another Heart, a Heart that was pierced, that flowed forth in a new and eternal spring that closed the gulf of sin … the Heart that is the source of a fountain that never runs dry.
Father J. Brian Bransfield is assistant general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference and author of “The Human Person: According to John Paul II” (Pauline, $19.95).
“We lived in places that we never knew.
We could not name the birds perched on our sill,
Or see the trees we cut down for our view.
What we possessed we always chose to kill. ...
“Become the voice of our forgotten places.
Teach us the names of what we have destroyed. ...
“We offer you the landscape of your birth — Exquisite
and despoiled. We all share blame.
We cannot ask forgiveness of the earth
For killing what we cannot even name.”
— Dana Gioia, “A California Requiem”