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Aug 05 2007

“Someone’s looking out for me”: God and the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Catholic_church_minneapolisFrom USA Today, August 2 2007:

“Jim Koralesky, 63, who also attended the Mass [a prayer service held Thursday in honor of the bridge collapse victims], took the Interstate 35W bridge six times Wednesday before it collapsed. He was about to take it again a few minutes before 6 p.m. to go to Home Depot. But he said he ran into a friend in his parking lot and got involved in a conversation. After 15 minutes of chatting, he scuttled plans for his errand.

“‘It would have put me on that bridge around that time,’ he said. ‘Someone’s looking out for me.’”

Minneapolis_bridge_collapseYou hear this a lot in the aftermath of disasters. People who “should have” been on the plane that crashed; people who “should have” been on the freeway that collapsed… they say it a lot. Survivors of the Columbine shooting said it: people who were at the school that day but didn’t get shot. It’s a strikingly common reaction to a near-miss of a huge disaster:

Guardian_angel“Someone up there was looking out for me.”

“I guess my guardian angel was with me that day.”

And my reaction is always the same:

Rage.

Trembling, teeth-grinding, physically- sick- to- my- stomach rage.

I think this is one of the most insulting, insensitive things a person could possibly say in the aftermath of a deadly disaster.

And it’s one of the things that makes me most angry about religion.

Eric_harris_dylan_kleboldThink about it. So what are the people who actually did die — chopped liver? Where was their guardian angel? The people who did die on the collapsed bridge, the people who did get shot at Columbine — God thought they deserved it? Or maybe God just didn’t care enough about them to save them? Was their guardian angel on a coffee break — or did their angel decide, “Eh, never mind, you can be on the bridge when it collapses”?

Blake_god_1Obviously, not all religious people are insensitive enough to actually say this stuff out loud. (Especially at a service in honor of the people who did die, for fuck’s sake.) But I think it’s inherently implied; not in all religion, but in any religion that believes in an interventionist god or spirit that has the power to either cause or prevent the earthquake, the school shooting, the bridge collapse.

God_bless_our_homeWhen you say that your life is blessed by God — that you have your good job, your nice home, your happy family, your health and prosperity generally, all by the grace of God — the logical implication is that people who don’t have those things are cursed by God. The children born into starvation and war; the people whose homes are destroyed by tsunamis; the people who get slaughtered by crazy mass murderers; the children with birth defects or genetic diseases; the people who plunge to their death when a bridge collapses… either God doesn’t like them, or God doesn’t care about them.

Tornado_2It’s the problem of suffering all over again. Except instead of the problem being, “Why does God cause/ allow suffering?” the problem now becomes, “Why do people think that God is personally protecting them from suffering when he seems perfectly happy to throw millions of others to the wolves?”

RandomnessI get it that it’s hard to believe in dumb luck. It’s hard to believe that your life could be radically changed — or ended — by tiny incidents of pure random chance. It can make you feel very small, and make your life feel very much out of control. (And feeling that your life could be changed or ended by government mismanagement and a reflexive, unthinking, “low taxes always good” approach to fiscal policy… that can really make you feel small and out of control.)

Sistine_godBut if the alternative is a belief in a God who kept you chatting with your friend so you wouldn’t be on the bridge when it collapsed — but didn’t do the same for several other perfectly wonderful people — then I’ll take dumb luck any day. When terrible things happen for completely random reasons, there’s something comforting about not believing that there’s someone out to get you.

LotteryAnd I get that people who have been fortunate in life — either in a general “health and prosperity” way or in a more specific “I could easily have been on that bridge when it collapsed” way — often feel a sense of humility and gratitude, and want to express that somehow. While I do think the “Somebody up there likes me” trope is arrogant and insulting, I think most people who use it don’t mean it that way. Not consciously, anyway. As a friend recently told me, one of the hardest parts of letting go of a belief in a conscious guiding spirit is letting go of the impulse to say “Thank you” for the good things in your life. And it’s an impulse I both understand and respect.

Ngel_de_la_guardaBut there has to be a better way to express that feeling than with the insulting, self-centered assertion that “Someone’s looking out for me.” Especially when you’re at the memorial service of the people nobody was looking out for.

(Via Ingrid, who saw the USA Today article at her hotel.)

16 comments

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  1. 1
    C4bl3Fl4m3

    Hmm… perhaps theists (in this case, a specific Christian mindset) might have another way to explain it. I don’t think that they think that those who didn’t make it were cursed by God. Rather that it was those people’s time to move on (perhaps to Heaven). And those who got injured or those who lost someone in the disaster, perhaps it was their time to learn the lessons taught from loss of a loved one… including how much one’s friends and community cares about them. Perhaps that’s what they think that God wanted to teach the people who God “wasn’t looking out for”. Perhaps they think God was looking out for everyone, but in different ways.
    “one of the hardest parts of letting go of a belief in a conscious guiding spirit is letting go of the impulse to say “Thank you” for the good things in your life.”
    This is one of the things that I have worked with after leaving Catholicism for my own spiritual agnostic path. It’s just second nature for me to want to thank someone or something for the good things in my life. So I’ve realized that expressing thanks is a different thing from thanking something or someone in particular. When I’m with theists that say grace over a meal (like my mother), and I’m asked to say the grace, I express our gratefulness that we have food to eat, gratefulness for the loving company eating with us, and sometimes a wish that all people would have enough to eat and loving company to dine with them. I do not address any deities; rather, I let the gratitude stand alone. An agnostic’s grace, I think of it as. I put a particularly lovely one in my LiveJournal one Thanksgiving:
    We are grateful for the food and for the company with us today.
    We are grateful for our friends and our families, those who love us.
    We are grateful for the technology that has become an integral part of our lives, even when it does malfunction.
    We are grateful for our continued safety, for keeping us from the grasps of our foes.
    We are grateful for our city, our country, our world. May they all exist in peace and love.
    For these things, we are grateful and give thanks.

  2. 2
    Rebecca

    As usual, there is also an interventionist god-related explanation for being struck by tragedy, as well as one for avoiding it. Like you said, if you happened to have a near miss, god was “looking out for you.” But if you happened to be in the next car and fall to your death, god “wanted you with him” or “called you home.”
    This shows up constantly in cases of the death of a child. The parent is “comforted” with the claim that their child was just so sweet and wonderful that god wanted him or her with him as soon as possible.
    So, in other words, either god likes you so much he saved you, or god likes you so much he let you die. Huh? I can understand a father needing to believe that his daughter is either alive because god loves her or dead because god loves her. But the same belief about oneself is actually rather self-aggrandizing, if you think about it.

  3. 3
    Greta Christina

    “I don’t think that they think that those who didn’t make it were cursed by God. Rather that it was those people’s time to move on (perhaps to Heaven).”
    If everybody died an easy, peaceful death after a fruitful life, I could maybe buy this. Everybody has to die sometime, after all. But why do so many deaths happen in pain and fear, or after long periods of agonizing pain and suffering, or ridiculously young? Why do people die at age eight after four years with cancer, or at age five of starvation in Rwanda, or after a terrifying plunge into icy water when a bridge collapses under them? If God is just “calling people home,” why does the trip have to be so horrible?
    I think Rebecca has hit the nail on the head. It’s “heads I win, tails I win too.” When things go people’s way, their prayers have been answered or God is looking after them; when things don’t go their way, God works in mysterious ways, or they have some hard but important lesson to learn, or God is calling them or their loved one home. No matter what happens, God caused it and it’s good.
    Thus rendering the idea of God completely useless as a hypothesis, and (as I talked about in “The Problem of Suffering”) rendering the entire concept of good and evil utterly useless.

  4. 4
    stephen gottlieb

    two simple thoughts. firstly, if it is somebody’s time to die, doesn’t that imply that god was in fact “looking out for them” and decided that it was their time, or worse yet, they were using up too much? doesn’t a bridge collapse seem a little heavy handed when a heart attack would get the yahoo who is over his quota?
    second thought. I hear the phrase “I should have been there” associated with divine salvation too, and I think to myself, “yeah, you should have been there, moron.”

  5. 5
    grendelkhan

    I’m surprised that I’m (it seems) the first Babylon 5 fan here. Anyone else remember Marcus saying the following?
    “You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”

  6. 6
    Donna Gore

    Greta, I agree with everything you say. There is a lot of rampant hypocrisy going on here, in more ways than one. If there is a heaven, then wouldn’t the people who died be the lucky ones? Instead of acting like they escaped something, the believers would be jealous of the ones who got to go to heaven. Why is it that those who believe in Heaven show so much fear of going there?
    And then there’s the money thing.
    I live in the bible belt. I hear rich Christians say, over and over again, “Oh I’m blessed. I’m so blessed!” I even saw this on a sticker on a very expensive car.
    In other words, the reason I have this nice car, and all this money, is because I’m God’s favorite. He really likes me! Which only follows, then, that if you’re poor, it’s because he does NOT like you.
    These kinds of things that I see have formed in me the opinion that religion is the most self-centered, self-indulgent pursuit of human kind. It’s all about ME, ME, ME, ME.
    PS — I like the Thanksgiving thing, and the B5 quote.

  7. 7
    Blah

    It’s all really a game of chance. A few years ago I was hit by a truck. I escaped with minor injuries, but if I had been a foot or two further into the intersection I probably would’ve died. So what? Some people I know took it as a sign that “God was looking out for you”. No, I’m alive because I was in the right place at the wrong time, rather than the wrong place at the wrong time, not because some invisible sky wizard decided that I’m worth keeping around.

  8. 8
    Camcon

    Its like a never ending process. People will say “well God was looking out for me” and one must think well what about the others, and people will fire back with a “it was their time, or God needed them in heaven”. Its a wicked belief.

  9. 9
    The Rabbit Ambulance

    Looking within myself, I realize that such a phrase is something that I might say after a near-miss like that.
    Let’s posit:
    I miss my plane, something happens to it. I can totally see myself saying some line containing “Guardian Angel”. After reading your reaction to it, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
    On the other hand, I don’t see it necessarily being as bad as you make it out to be; It’s a metaphor. I’m expressing that I got lucky. Hell, maybe I’m even deflecting survivor’s guilt or something (I don’t see myself at my intellectual peak in this situation, see). I’m definitely not trying to imply that everybody else doesn’t have the divine blessing of their own personal winged invisible bodyguard (seeing as I don’t believe in any of that), or making any statements of worth me relative them. I certainly hope I wouldn’t be stupid enough to say that to a TV crew or similar, but I think I did already mention my probably diminished mental capacities in the situation.
    It’s definitely something to think about, though: is it acceptable to attribute good fortune to the supernatural, even in jest or rethoric?
    And to take it down a notch: is it acceptable for me as a materialist/naturalist to use the phrase “thank god” in my day to day rhetoric?

  10. 10
    Bertha Vazquez

    I have always noted that believers have a very self-centered air about them. Their comments in times like a bridge collapse really magnify this self-importance. Have you read “Losing my Religion” by William Lobdell? When he describes his total immersion into fundamentalist Christianity, what struck me the most was how repugnantly arrogant and selfish it was. People who make comments like “my guardian angel saved me” may simply not see the irony and absurdity of their words.

  11. 11
    Doina

    I have seen the other day a video of a couple stuck with their small plane on the power lines. The rescuers risked their lives to save them and what do you think they got? “Thank God!”. I was so furious! Where was God when those people risked their own lives trying to save you? Where was God when you got stuck? @$##$^#!!! I’m so sick of this!
    (sorry for my English)

  12. 12
    JB

    The most important thing to remember is that in modern Christianity, the belief structure is that God is responsible for good things and the Devil is responsible for the Bad. It has evolved now to encompass that the bad things are brought on by god as well. If one were to really study and understand the bible, one would realize that in the “christian” faith structure, God has given man free will. the will to choose good or evil, to do right or wrong, to make good bridges or to skimp out to save a little extra money. Bad things happen to bad and good people, just like good things happen to bad and good people. We all must die, we all know nothing on how that will happen as well. Is it unfortunate that some will die in horrible ways, yes. I don’t believe that God’s finger we in it to destroy “those” people, nor do I think that he was calling them home. I think that the free will that he gave man, the will that he will not interfere with, was the culprit. It was mans greed or lack of knowledge, or haste, or whatever that caused the bridge to collapse and cause death.
    Another way to look at it is this, perhaps God was punishing his children, much like a father punishes a child who is being naughty. As a father, I dislike punishing my daughter for being naughty, but I have to, otherwise she won’t learn. Does she think that I’m being mean and that I don’t love her? Of course she does, because she doesn’t understand yet. does that mean that I love her less because she’s naughty? Absolutly NOT! I love her just as much when she’s naughty as when she’s good and it hurts me to have to punish her, but I have to do it sometimes.
    Modern Christianity is messed up, their heads are so far up their ass that they spew lies and fear into the masses, no wonder they see a decline in numbers.
    The truth is this…We are all called to die at least once (this life) because of our sin. Some are called to die a second time (The afterlife in Hell). God isn’t looking for good people, and he’s not looking for bad people, he’s looking for faithful people.

  13. 13
    Maria

    That’s a very silly and naive world-view, JB, and contradictory in parts too!

  14. 14
    Greta Christina

    JB: You’re kidding, right?
    The people who died on the bridge were not the people who made the bridge. What sense does it make to say that the bridge collapse happened because people have free will, when the people who died weren’t the people who made the bad choice to make the bad bridge? And what sense does it make to say that God was punishing the people who made the bridge badly by killing other people — and by making their loved ones suffer their loss?
    And if God doesn’t care about whether people are good or bad, but only cares about whether people are faithful or obedient to him, than God is a self-absorbed, power-hungry asshole, and I wouldn’t worship him even if I believed he existed.

  15. 15
    B. D.

    J. B. : F@&K the WHAT?
    When you discipline a child, you’re trying to teach or protect it: fire is hot, don’t touch a hot stove; stealing is bad, don’t steal.
    God disciplined humanity by dropping people in a river? Exactly HOW does that discipline humanity? What is being taught? From what was humanity being protected?
    Were the people on the bridge just not faithful enough?
    Do you even realize the blatant contradiction and outright stupidity of what you wrote?
    I live in Minneapolis, I am incredibly outraged at what you are saying. I would really like you to come here and say that face to face to the survivors and to the families of those who died!

  16. 16
    'Tis Himself

    John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was a soldier in the English Civil War (1642–1651). One day he was supposed to have sentry duty. His captain sent him on an errand and someone else stood his sentry watch. This substitute was killed during a raid on Bunyan’s camp. In his autobiography Bunyan explains how this was proof that God had a purpose for him and saved his life. All through this bit of self-congratulation there’s not a word about the poor bastard who got killed. God must not have had a purpose for him.

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