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The World of Matter

By Frank Gruber

In one of my favorite books, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, there is a character, Clifford, who has been in prison for 30 years. When he is released, he learns about the telegraph.

A man Clifford meets on a train tells Clifford that the telegraph will be a great help in catching bank robbers and murderers. This dismays Clifford. He tells the man that something as "immaterial and miraculous" as the telegraph should be reserved for the use of lovers, to "send their heartthrobs from Maine to Florida," or for purposes such as informing an absent husband that he had become a father, so that his child's "little voice" could echo in his heart.

Being nine time zones away from home, I thought of Hawthorne's telegraph, as Santa Monica's grief trickled to me by way of email and websites. As Clifford says, "Is it a fact--or have I dreamt it--that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time?"

When I first heard about what happened Wednesday at the Farmers Market, after the initial horror, imagining the scene in a place I know so well, my concern was for the safety of my friends. Emails and phone calls went back and forth. Along with everyone back home, I waited for the coroner to release the names of the victims, and as I write this on Friday, I'm still waiting with dread to hear about the injured.

We all know this feeling. We would rather sympathize with someone else's grief than grieve ourselves, yet in our minds we know that the total amount of grief released by a tragedy will be the same, no matter who mourns.

As it turned out, I didn't know any of the dead, but then, reading of them, and looking at their photographs on the internet -- vibrating thousands of miles away -- I felt as if I knew them all, or at least had seen them around. It was as if a computer programmed to identify a random set of members of our community had selected a perfectly representative sample.

Surely, Santa Monica has never had a worse day.

Theologians and philosophers have long contended with the existence of bad things.

Natural disasters and disease have made religious people question the benevolence of God, the evil deeds and moral evils of human beings have made everyone question the goodness of humanity.

They all try -- we all try -- to get a grip on that question popularly posed as "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

In the Hebrew Bible, the basis of so much of the world's tradition, the prophets admonish their people to mend their own ways, to please an angry God. That attitude continues in many Christian churches as well, and in other religions, too, such as Islam, often coupled with the idea that since we cannot understand God, we don't know his bigger plan.

To me, this thinking has always seemed unfair both to humanity and to what in Hawthorne's day was often called Providence. Is it possible to believe that the victims of disasters, natural and human, have anything to explain about their lives?

And what right do people have to project their human failings -- anger, wrath, retribution -- on the deity?

Certain philosophers have tried to shift the burden of evil to humanity, positing that however innocent humanity was in its natural state, the coming together to create civilizations unleashed social forces that caused bad things to happen.

Another kind of philosopher says that we cannot explain the world and we should resign ourselves to that, and that any thinking beyond skepticism -- any ambition to explain things better -- will only make matters worse, by leading us into superstition or fanaticism.

But let's face it, it's hard to understand such things as a man living a good, long life, only to make a wrong turn into a catastrophic moment of confusion; and equally hard to comprehend such things as a mass of people doing that most innocent and beautiful thing, buying food from the people who raised it, only to be consumed by catastrophe.

To me, there is no explanation beyond the horrible coincidence that if there are an infinite number of days of perfect happiness at, for instance, farmers markets, and an infinite number of people who are fallible, such as elderly drivers, then, sooner or later, there will be a disaster.

Solace comes from what we do.

Do what we can to prevent future similar catastrophes.

Heal those who are injured, and welcome them back to our community.

And remember the dead. Yes, grieve for the future that has been lost. But most of all, remember the joy they gave their friends and family in life, and the happiness they enjoyed themselves.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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