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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Making sense of the cruelty in the world

Children wearing signs that say “survivor” waited for a C-130 military plane at Tacloban airport in the Philippines Tuesday.

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Children wearing signs that say “survivor” waited for a C-130 military plane at Tacloban airport in the Philippines Tuesday.

Horrific disasters like Typhoon Haiyan, which slammed into the Philippines last week with devastating and lethal effect, have always raised the most excruciating questions: Why is the world so full of grief and cruelty? Why do such bad things happen to good and innocent people?

What philosophers of religion call “the problem of evil” is the greatest emotional obstacle to faith in God. How can a God of love and justice permit so much savagery and suffering?

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These are ancient questions, but they never grow old: Every catastrophe, whether natural or man-made — every plague and tsunami, every massacre and pogrom — raises them anew.

But how God can abide such undeserved misery isn’t the only enigma that should torment us. How can human beings abide it?

This too is an old, old question, one that philosophers and artists in every age have grappled with. Around 450 years ago, the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel acutely posed the challenge in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” It depicts a scene from Greek mythology — the death of the boy who, with wings made of wax and feathers, rashly flies too close to the sun, then plummets to his death in the sea when the wax melts. In Breugel’s great work, Icarus is drowning, but no one seems to care. The farmer keeps plowing, an idle shepherd daydreams, a fisherman concentrates on his line. It isn’t too late to save Icarus, but the world just goes about its business.

Breugel’s painting hangs in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels. That is where W. H. Auden viewed it in 1938, and was moved to distill its message about human apathy into a haunting poem.

. . . how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Auden’s poem appeared just weeks after Kristallnacht, the massive Nazi pogrom that was the opening act of Hitler’s genocide against the Jews. The world knew what was happening, but did nothing to prevent it.

Typhoon Haiyan, tearing through Tacloban on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, has evoked a very different response. As with so many other recent calamities — horrors as different as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis — the awful news from the Philippines was followed instantly by offers of help and an outpouring of aid. Governments and charitable organizations swung quickly into action. Tens of thousands of private citizens have already donated money to try to alleviate some of the suffering.

Why there is so much cruelty in the world is something humans have always struggled to make sense of. When harrowing things happen to blameless victims, the impulse to be angry with God is understandable. “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham demands in Genesis on learning that God intends to wipe out an entire city. “Far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

For most of us there may never be a satisfying answer to such questions. When you see images of the despair and destruction the Philippine typhoon left in its wake, what comfort can there be in scientific or philosophical justifications?

It is hard to live without understanding. But would a genuinely fulfilling explanation leave us better off? Suppose we could gaze on the suffering in Tacloban and somehow understand why it was all for the best. Would that make us more likely to try to end such suffering? Or would it make us more likely to be like the ploughman in Breugel’s painting, who “heard the splash, the forsaken cry,” but didn’t think it was important to do anything to save the drowning Icarus?

When bad things happen to good people, our job isn’t to philosophize. It is to help. We can’t know why there is so much anguish in this world. But each of us can try to reduce it.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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