Sense and Nonsense: Good Grief!

Bad news makes good headlines. We all know this, of course. We live in a time that specializes in secular apocalypse, probably because we have lost the sense of religious apocalypse. Yet even religious apocalypse seems to be enjoying a revival. The end of the world is big business. We are said to have too many people, too little ozone, too much pollution. Tankers are spilling oil; Soviet nuclear plants are exploding. We remember the French Revolution, Chappaquiddick, and the landing on the moon but we still cannot figure out whether they were good or bad, all things considered.

In a single issue of the Washington Post the other day, Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan dictator (himself a disaster for the Nicaraguans), was seen splashing in the waters at Tela, Honduras; violent crimes were up nationwide by 5.5 percent, with the District of Columbia, the would-be state, leading the way; rubble from Armenia’s earthquake was piled on the front page; the polar ice cap was said to be melting; God only knows about the rediscount rate, while yet other front-page headlines soberly wondered “Will Palm Trees Replace Pines on the Potomac” in the next hundred years because of the so-called greenhouse effect? There was even a map showing which parts of Washington, D.C (the crime capital), would be under water in the year 2050. Everyone will be pleased to learn that to reach the whole Federal Triangle will require diving equipment in 2050. The leading crime areas of the city, however, were left untouched—so much for divine retribution. Both of these facts combined will no doubt hurt the local tourist trade.

Two days later an earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area, itself something of a candidate for apocalypse. Bubonic plague has reappeared together with the grape root disease in California. AIDS remains a mysterious something caused by an unjust nature, the fault mainly of the medical profession for not finding a cure. No matter that this has been the coolest and wettest summer in years, that the past winter was coldest in Alaska, we are to continue to worry about all sorts of political and natural disasters. China, meanwhile, is in either iron dictatorship or chaos. No one can free any hostages. It is almost sinful to worry about our sins when so many really “big” problems are about.

In the meantime, Dixie Lee Ray, that feisty, pleasantly iconoclastic lady, pointed out in Policy Review (Summer 1989) that practically all the fears about global warming are probably false, that in fact the world may be getting cooler not warmer, that sun spots or volcanic eruptions cause more greenhouse effects than do man-made problems.

The quantity of air-polluting materials produced by man during his entire existence on earth does not begin to equal the quantities of toxic gases and particulates spewed forth into the atmosphere from just three volcanic eruptions: Krakatau in Indonesia in 1883, Mount Katmai in Alaska in 1912, and Hekla in Iceland in 1947. Mt. St. Helens pumped out 910,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide during six months in 1982, not including the eruption.

But the political trouble with sun spots and volcanos is that it is hard to blame anyone for them. Who knows when volcanos will erupt? The word “fault,” as in San Andreas Fault, used to refer to a geographic or natural fact. Nobody was really responsible for it. Now admittedly we have figured out a way to sue almost anything that nature can think up. We even managed to sue the Koreans because the Russians downed one of Korea’s commercial planes.

Since things seem so bad, some wonder whether the world ought to exist in the first place. This conclusion, unfortunately, requires the positing of something like a God to blame it all on. Some people find this to be a violation of the separation of church and state. Certainly you cannot teach that sort of thing in the schools. It might frighten the children. So we have to find someone else to blame. This search has become doubly difficult with the Russians and the Chinese already blaming themselves, or at least Stalin and Mao, former heroes. In a world in which the main cause of any disorder from racism to feminism is blamed on someone else, this may be a healthy sign. The trouble is that the Chinese reneged. They are now back to blaming someone else.

I have a friend who says that “envy,” not injustice, may be this age’s besetting sin. This view, however, which is rarely preached, is clearly dangerous doctrine as it implies that we may not be able to blame someone else for our problems.

* * *

Charlie Brown and Lucy are seen walking down the street, Lucy in front, Charlie asking her mildly, “Are you going to make any New Year’s Resolutions, Lucy?” At which question, Lucy turns abruptly around to shout at a Charlie being turned upside down by the force of her voice, “WHAT? What for? What is wrong with me now? I LIKE MYSELF JUST THE WAY I AM.” She continues to a Charlie aghast: “WHY SHOULD I CHANGE? WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THE MATTER WITH YOU, CHARLIE BROWN?” Finally in a fighting mood, Lucy continues, now yelling at the sky, “I’m all right the way I am! I don’t HAVE to improve! How COULD I improve? HOW? I ask you, HOW?” At this, despondently, Charlie walks away saying to himself merely, “Good Grief!”

In these days of headlines full of secular apocalypse in which everything is wrong except something in ourselves, you cannot help liking Lucy. Somehow you have to be grateful for Krakatau, Katmai, Hekla, and Mount St. Helens. There is no one to blame them on except the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and He (if I still might use that noble term of the Divinity, in imitation of Himself) may just have a reason for putting us here for something other than blaming each other for our faults. Charlie’s favorite phrase—Good Grief—may in the end just have metaphysical overtones, like Felix Culpa, to which it seems to point. Even if we live amidst disaster, we are still made for glory.

Good Grief. Felix Culpa.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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