Earthquakes and Fragility: A Spirituality of Compassion

The devastating earthquake in Japan and the resulting suffering and loss of life has been a terrible thing to witness. The news grips the heart and many people have responded to ease the suffering in some way. The outflow of compassionate response from around the world, in terms of the sending of money, disaster relief teams and equipment, and consoling those who have lost family and friends in the disaster, has been a powerfully reaction of love to those most vulnerable. I feel hopeful for the human family when I see the selfless response from so many people to reach out to their neighbors in distress.

The recent catastrophic events in Japan reminded me of an interview I heard a while ago with Xavier Le Pichon, one of the world’s leading geophysicists and his pioneering research on plate tectonics. He revolutionized our understanding of the way the earth’s geology is structured and was the formative figure 50 years ago who helped us to understand that the earth’s crust consists of tectonic plates beneath the ocean with fault lines that are in constant motion, shaping entire continents and giving rise to explosive geological events.

At age 36, Le Pichon had a profoundly formative spiritual experience that brought a radical shift to his personal life. He had resigned all of his scientific positions and went to India to work with Mother Teresa with the most vulnerable and dying in the streets of Calcutta. There he tended to a small boy who was very fragile and in the last stages of dying of hunger. He felt a profound empathy with the child and felt himself at one with his fragility, and he promised that from this moment on he would never turn his eyes from anyone who was suffering. He returned to France and he and his family spent the next decades living at the original L’Arche community with peoples and families facing severe mental and physical disabilities.

He also returned to his work as a geophysicist, continuing his pioneering work on plate tectonics, emerging with a rare perspective on the meaning of humanity. He suggests that fragility, whether it be the fault lines between massive earth plates, or the most vulnerable within human communities, is fundamental to the evolution of vital systems.

He illustrates the point by describing the inner geological workings of tectonic shifts. Earthquakes are formed from the lower layers of the earth where the temperatures are high. The temperatures are so high that rocks are able to re-form around weaknesses within their structure without fracturing; they flow because they are ductile. But when the temperatures are relatively low, as in the upper few miles of the earth’s crust, the rocks are rigid and the weaknesses cannot be accommodated, until pressures push the rocks to the limits of their resistance, and suddenly, give rise to a major commotion or earthquake.

Quoting Le Picho: “And so the difference is that in one case, the defaults play a role in putting weakness in that and making things much more smooth, and in the other case, it’s very rigid. And I find in the society it’s very often the same thing in the community. Communities which are very strong, very rigid, that do not take into account the weak points of the community, the people who are in difficulty and so on, tends to be communities that do not evolve. And when they evolve, it’s generally by a very strong commotion, a revolution”

Xavier Le Pichon has come to think of caring attention to weakness in ourselves and in others as an essential quality that allowed humanity to evolve. He illustrates this point further by pointing to how babies reshape the focus and energy of the parents based on its weakness and fragility:

“The first child is extremely weak. He has no power, nothing. But he is really the boss in the house, you know? As soon as he cries, he asks for something, up, everybody is at his service. You know, everything evolves around this new child. And it is the same thing when in a family or community you really are taking care with love of somebody who is sick or in the last stage of his life. Suddenly, we take turns around this person, and that is what extremely specific of man community. Human communities have been built around two kinds of — I call them poles, you know, centers. They have reorganized themselves around the small ones, the babies, because otherwise there is no life possible. So that we share with all the mammals. But also the people who are in great difficulty because of suffering, because of sickness, because of handicap, because life is coming to the end. And that’s really very new and special. You know, it becomes a society which we call human… There is a new touch, a new kindness, a new softness, a new way of living which is completely introduced by the fact that you put the weakest in the center of the community and they become the ones who are going to regulate the life of the society.”

The devastating earthquakes in Japan demonstrate the fragility of the earth, as well as the communities of life that live upon it. But they also demonstrate how fragility, suffering and weakness can give rise to the resilience of compassion. The human community will evolve strong into the future only in so far it is able to attend to those most vulnerable in its midst, whether that be those who are homeless on our streets, or those who are homeless due to earthquakes. A spirituality of compassion, a spirituality that includes care for the most vulnerable, is what is needed now more than ever.

To hear the whole interview with Xavier Le Pichon, go to Krista Tippet on Being a program of American Public Media:

Originally appeared in the Times Colonist on April 10, 2011.

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