It’s all very well being able to focus on birdsong when the rawness of my grief has settled into painful scar tissue and when I live in the tree enclosed security of a New Zealand garden but it would be crass beyond belief to suggest birdsong or sunrise to a survivor of a Haitian earthquake who had just witnessed the lingering death of family and neighbours. 85% of the population of Haiti were already below the poverty line and are now living with no guarantee of food, shelter, warmth or as one BBC announcer put it, comfort.
We can turn to the writings of the poets, for example, from Macbeth: “Come what, come may:/time and the hour runs through the roughest day” or Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Comfort that serves in a whirlwind:/each live death does end, and each day dies with sleep.” But these are only on the surface of comfort; all they are telling us is that life continues, not that tomorrow will be better. Paul’s death was hideous, but the very worst was waking the next morning and knowing he was dead. It’s the scale of the disaster that appalls us.
200,000 deaths are strictly speaking, no worse than one death repeated 200,000 times within a few months, the deaths arouse in us compassion, and I trust, no suggestion of prurience and maybe: “There but for the grace of God go I”, which appears just to be saying that I am fortunate and other people are so unfortunate (an elderly woman said that to me several times until I asked what it was saying about me and the grace of God). But if you unpick the saying completely, it is implying that God’s grace is on the side of some of the inhabitants of the world and not on the side of the others, an echo of the nineteenth century belief that if you were wealthy, it proved you were in God’s favour.
In the end it is probably the fact that we are so totally out of control that shocks us, that the world we live in is not gracious and generous towards us. Instead, we are at its mercy.