From 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.'”
You 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:
“I guess my guardian angel was with me that day.”
And my reaction is always the same:
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.
Think 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”?
Obviously, 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.
When 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.
It’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?”
I 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.)
But 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.
And 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.
But 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.)