In My Own Write: Power for good and bad

Fire, water, love, sex, money, religion and the Internet: What do they share?

Jerusalem blanketed in snow 370 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post staff)
Jerusalem blanketed in snow 370
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post staff)
When the past week’s storms made staying indoors a necessity, I spent time gazing out at the huge quantities of water falling in turn as rain, snow, sleet and hail, causing widespread damage to homes, possessions and sometimes people. It brought home the intriguing reality of a number of everyday but nevertheless awesome things central to our lives that carry a tremendous double potential for both good and bad.
And what we naively tend to do, I reflected, is use these things casually, taking for granted their potential for continuing good while blithely ignoring their innate potential for the opposite.
As I watched the snow falling in lovely feathery flakes, seven of those ubiquitous things occurred to me, six of them age-old – fire, water, love, sex, money and religion – and the seventh a Johnny-come-lately: the Internet.
WHAT STRUCK me was the enormous power all these things possess, and how the fact of their familiar presence in our lives often makes us dismissive of that power.
Think of turning on the water tap to wash our hands, fill the kettle, take a shower. Could anything be tamer or more harmless than water? Then recall the scenes of destruction wreaked by water untamed, water gone wild such as Japan’s 2011 Tohoku tsunami, which killed 18,000 people; or major urban flooding in Mumbai, New Orleans, Yangon (Rangoon) and Dresden – just a few of the massive water-linked disasters that have caused havoc over the past decade.
But why venture so far afield? Anyone following the news here in Israel over the past week has been shocked by the near-total disruption of normal life engendered by four days of recurring precipitation.
As of a few days ago, some 13,000 people countrywide were going into their – unbelievable – fourth day without electricity in temperatures that hovered around freezing as the nights closed in. Countless homes have sustained serious water damage, our newly renovated apartment included.
The financial toll has been estimated at over NIS 300 million – and that’s just harm to agriculture.
When we walked around in light clothing as we celebrated Hanukka amid mild temperatures, did we dream of what water would be wreaking just a couple of weeks later?
FIRE, TOO, can swing with appalling swiftness from benign to deadly, sometimes in minutes. As people use their electric appliances or turn on the gas for cooking, admire the glow of burning candles or light their cigarettes, do their minds leap ahead to picture how fire behaves when it gets out of hand? They don’t; and maybe that’s nature’s protective device ensuring that we don’t become paralyzed by every awful possibility.
Yet we ought to find a way of putting that sobering picture – forgive the metaphor – on a back burner in our minds. It would make us more aware of fire’s power.
Just a week ago, major media outlets reported a deadly fire that ripped through a market in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, killing 16 people and injuring five.
In December 2011, six board members of the upscale AMRI hospital in Kolkata, India, were arrested after a fire in which 89 people died. The privately owned hospital was accused of ignoring basic fire safety laws and abandoning patients.
And who in Israel can forget the 2010 Carmel fire – Israel’s worst civilian disaster – which raged for four days and nights, claimed 44 lives, forced the evacuation of nearly 17,000 people and consumed 8,650 acres of land and natural forest? Israel’s Fire and Rescue Service was nationalized in February 2012, but it still lacks 1,700 firefighters. Have we, as a nation, forgotten the horrific results of the Carmel fire and other, lesser conflagrations that are a regular feature of our hot, dry summers? Where are the government-sponsored ads in the media urging able-bodied young men to join the Fire and Rescue Service, offering attractive conditions?
THE UNARGUABLE potential for good and bad that is inherent in love, sex, religion and money – and the Internet – are the stuff of books and movies, and these various potentials are often interconnected.
About love, there is no more powerful joy than when it springs from a genuine desire for the well-being of the other, whether lover or child, and of oneself in healthy union with the other. And there is scarcely a worse evil than the abuse that can masquerade as love, but is really a desire for power over the other, or for financial gain.
The world of sex is complex and variegated, but no one would deny its power for good when it is the physical expression of positive and mutual feeling; and for evil when it is traded as a commodity, with coercion and abuse, as in the trafficking of women.
However, when young people barely out of childhood use sex as a means to… perhaps they hardly know to what – that, too, is an abuse of sex’s power whose ramifications are far-reaching.
Perhaps the most important thing to say in this connection is that in our highly commercialized, electronically connected and fast-paced world, love and sex are – often deliberately – whipped up by interested parties such as the fashion industry into a sticky and enticing concoction that can confuse the wisest of us, let alone vulnerable and immature youngsters eager for connection and approval.
What concerned parents have to do, therefore, is sort out their own often unclear attitudes and boundaries regarding love/sex and make them part of their children’s education. This education has, by default, been too often left to the media and the Internet, with predictably awful results. Failure to take on this vital task is a dereliction of parental duty, pure and simple.
THE POWER of money for good and evil hardly needs to be stated; it has always been part of the fabric of our lives, well before Bernard Madoff destroyed many thousands of unsuspecting investors; and one of the ways money is being used for evil in our current reality is via its support of murderous regimes, groups and individuals.
Those regimes, groups and individuals justify their actions by citing religious mandates for their murderous ways, highlighting – as if it were needed – the tremendous power of religion.
THE GREAT inner peace, spiritual support and moral guidance that result from the positive power of religion are well known to the millions who experience that power as a constant in their lives. In contrast, our world today is being rocked by those who use religion as a justification for heinous acts, from beheading the innocent to blowing them up.
What always surprises me, as an observant Jew, is how ready many people are to blame God for those despicable acts – not realizing what I have been trying to highlight throughout this column: that things which possess great power can be turned to good or bad, and that the sheer power inherent in, for example, religion can magnify that good or that bad.
Without religion, would the world be a kinder, gentler place? Many would argue yes, citing the many religion-based wars; but I doubt it.
Our natures are part animal, maybe part-savage, and where would we be were those natures set loose from the bonds of what we call Judeo-Christian morality? A further question: What has God to do with religious perversion? It’s people who pervert religion.
I HAVE touched on the Internet, and perhaps the jury is still out on whether the good of it outweighs the bad. We can appreciate the power and scope of the Web’s extraordinary networking and information abilities.
But again, as with every powerful thing, the Internet needs to be approached with respect and restraint, whether it is we using its amazing capabilities for ourselves, or we as parents keeping a close eye on where our children are wandering online.
Elsewhere I have compared concerned parenting with mud-wrestling: You have to get “down there in the dirt” with your children, and it takes physical and emotional energy, and time. But there’s really no choice.
REGARDING THOSE everyday things we take for granted, but which are so very, very powerful – let our watchwords be respect and restraint. They may help to keep us out of trouble.