Early this morning, I read news stories about a major quake in Tokyo along with tsunami worries. Fortunately, my friend is okay–but I have seen on my Facebook news page that many of my own friends have friends and family in Japan that they are worried about. In general, when I hear about earthquakes, among the first things I think about is–is this earthquake tsunamigenic, and whether my former coworkers at the USC Tsunami Research Group will be going out to the site to examine the wave run-up and help to further understand what earthquakes cause tsunamis and how bathymetry (the topography of the ocean floor) tsunami run-up.
Both of these concerns are due to the mysterious powers of connection. My Japanese friend (and subscriber to this blog) is a young woman named Miho. My job at the USC Tsunami Research Group was an undergraduate research opportunity I had as a result of a connection made with USC Professor Costas Synolakis while I was soldering strain gauges on concrete cylinders by myself in the sub-basement of the civil engineering building (which is not something I recommend, as soldering irons leave nasty burn scars). Once connections and concerns are made, you take them with you in the rest of your life. Instead of being limited to concern about your own small narrow world, you now have reasons to be concerned about the fate of others far away, beyond your power to influence but within your area of concern.
In this day and age many of us (especially those of us who are glued to our computers) have far-flung connections in many lands with whom we regularly talk. Our friendships with people from so far allows us to gain an understanding of how other people think and experience the world, and helps us gain a greater understanding of our brothers and sisters in diverse places, but it also means that our concern is spread far beyond the area that we can actually see and experience. You watch the news on tv with protests in Amman, and you feel concern about your friends who are in Jordan. You see news of a blizzard in New England, and you feel concern for your friends there. You read news on an earthquake in Japan, and you feel concern for friends there. The other side of far flung connections is a variety of matters to be concerned about.
It is hard for me to imagine the life of a peasant in some agricultural society (any will do) whose family has lived in their village for as long as anyone can remember, with the only news from the outside world coming from the odd traveler, a mistrusted peddler of some kind whose goods are still desired, or the occasional raid of bandits and armies stealing crops and livestock and causing general mayhem. Such people had little concern or interest in the goings on of anything outside of their village–all they wanted was to have enough to eat among the harshly varying climate, and to be left alone by tax collectors and bandits and soldiers.
The situation now could scarcely be more different. Within minutes of any disaster I have several e-mails about it in my inbox, and given the scattered nature of my friends and acquaintances, to say nothing of my own particular scattered research interests, there is usually something to be concerned about. Will my friends in Wisconsin or California suffer job losses because of the budget crises there? Does the rise of piracy against westerners in the Gulf of Aden mean that Somaliland’s international standing will improve? In our present civilization, our multiplicity of concerns means that our own well-being is directly tied to the well-being of many others from far away places whom we may not even know.
A few simple examples will suffice. Some friends of mine occasionally visit and serve in Colombia. Last year serious flooding took out much of the nation’s coffee crop, making coffee one of the many food items that has become more expensive and more difficult to find. A cold winter in Central Florida, where I live, dramatically affects the price and availability of winter strawberries (one of my favorite fruits) in many other places. This connectivity was true in the past, if not always recognized. A blight on potatoes in Ireland ended up leading to a mass exodus of Irish to the Northern part of the United States, which influenced the course of the Civil War (by giving the North a much higher population than the South, and thus a stronger industrial base for conducting war). What happens in other places has consequences for us, and so we ought not to merely focus on ourselves and our own narrow interests.
I for one am glad to have such far-flung connections, but it does mean that my concern is also far flung and various. For the benefit of greater knowledge and interaction in a larger part of the world we have to be concerned about so much more that goes on in the world. I think this price is worth paying, but it is a price nonetheless. Let us not forget that our greater connections with the world around us also bring us a greater awareness of the problems and threats and concerns of that wider world as well. May we use such awareness wisely, and show ourselves as faithful friends to our far-flung connections.