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The Lessons Learned From Tragedies

May 07, 1986|MIV SCHAAF

Why wasn't everyone running around holding their heads and screaming last week?

I felt like it. One blast of horror after another: the Libyan bombing; the Chernobyl nuclear accident; the Los Angeles Central Library fire and always in the background, world hunger.

People think I am an optimist because of the way I write, but I am a pessimist, a deep one, and sometimes think I write to convince myself I am wrong, that the world is a happier place than I see.

Around all my thinking, like a black border, ran echoes of what I had just finished reading, a book that impressed me more than any I have read in years: "Dream Worlds--Mass Consumption in the Late 19th-Century France" by Rosalind H. Williams (University of California Press). You'd think with a subtitle like that it would be dull and boring, but it threw a fascinating light of sudden understanding on today's world. It was not so unlikely comparing Louis XIV's way of life with ours--we buy different things but the same passionate drive to spend, to consume, to indicate our values by the things we possess runs through both. How much we want something determines the price; price is based on desire, a mental thing, having little to do with cost of raw materials or labor.

To me it seemed a shocking truth. We wonder why young people are becoming so vicious, so casual about life, so irresponsible toward others. And yet the message they continually receive is that life must be filled with material things; that is how we measure success, happiness, the meaning of life.

Unless we learn to value more than the material--ideas, knowledge, education--what is to prevent us from sinking into the same decadence? If we are not already there.

But, oddly, toward the end of the week, I began to feel almost optimistic. It seemed to me that some good things were coming out of these tragedies--or beginnings of good things.

The Libyan bombing has made a lot of people think about why anyone should kill anyone; is there any excuse?

The Soviet disaster has awakened people to the risks and power of nuclear energy; has made us realize we have to take the responsibility for handling it.

From the conference on hunger last week at UCLA came the statement that hunger is not an act of God or an act of nature; it is an act of politics and power. People are responsible. Rather a radical statement to see in print for everyone to read. We can do something about hunger.

At the news of the library fire, the bottom of my stomach dropped out. But then--surprise!--we saw how important the Central Library was to such a wide variety of people. People who looked as if they had never cracked a book saying, "It's the end of civilization"; people realizing how important books are; people coming out with boxes to help save books.

When Buckminster Fuller died a few years ago, I felt the world had fallen apart--who else was going to sew it together? "Gia," I said to my then-16-year-old daughter, "do you really think people can change the world?"

Lying on the sofa she looked up from her book--"Who else can?"

That's us, folks.

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