The New York Times characterizes the tsunami that struck coastal Japan as “murderous,” while a friend writes that “Planet Earth is an unfriendly place.” I rode out the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in my seventh-floor apartment in San Francisco, which experience instilled in me an appropriate terror and respect for the fluidity of so-called terra firma. The epicenter of that 6.1 earthquake was located far from my home — from which I infer that I can only imagine the power and trauma of a 9.0 quake centered close to the Japanese coast.
The key is not to rid ourselves of seeing the world in human terms; we’re imaginative creatures, our imaginations are where our greatest fun lies, and besides, we comprehend the universe by placing it in a box whose boundaries and metaphors we draw from human experience. We don’t need to abandon anthropomorphism, but we desperately need a bit of distance from the tendency to see the world through our inevitably self-centered eyes.
In his 1759 novel “Candide,” the French philosopher Voltaire seized upon the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 dead) to satirize his fellow philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Candide, Voltaire’s simple-minded hero, encounters one trauma after another, but each time he accepts the assurance of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, that these are necessary aspects of, in the words of Leibniz, this “best of all possible worlds.”