Category Archives: Freedom & Fate & Fortune

Connections

downloadIt was 2006. I was in the airport in Nairobi, Kenya and on my way to or way home from (I can’t remember at this point) two weeks at the UNFCCC negotiations for research. I remember missing the boys—it was my first long trip away from them. But I especially and will always remember being pulled out of that place into another orbit entirely as a vivacious and beautiful woman in her 70s (I later found out) started to gush to me about going on three weeks of safari for the first time in her life. Casual conversation about all the places she was going and how she was getting there (a helicopter in some cases) quickly turned to her sharing part of her life story of how she got there.

“You see,” she said, “you know what changed my life? I’ll tell you. I was on track to live my life as a housewife in 1954—the standard thing that was expected of me, from a good family, with good prospects for a husband, etc. I was working (in Texas, I think) when Playboy started. Hugh ‘found’ me and asked me to be on the cover. I was playmate of the month.” She went on to say that it was such a crazy thing, in the 1950s, to pose nude, but that Playboy managed to cut this difficult path through the center of the culture at the time by choosing ‘girl next door’ types from obscurity. And she talked about the restrictions, about how you were supposed to act because you were a bunny. But she talked more about all of the ways it changed her, the places she went, and, most importantly, the female friends she made. She described that world as being part of a family and, more importantly, part of a sisterhood with respect to being Playmate of the Month and a Playboy bunny as you were part of the fold. It took her out of the anticipated and expected life she was on track for and changed everything. She lived a life, now in her 70s, long after her centerfold days, that, based on that one risk, led to a life that she could say was fully lived on her own terms.

What amazed me about her description of the experience were two things: first, that the women who participated in the Playboy (magazine) world were like sisters who supported one another, and not just for the moment. For life. They were there for one another as they got married, or pursued careers, and showed up when things went sideways. And second, that Hugh Hefner was at the center of a lot of it. If he found out you couldn’t pay your mortgage, it would suddenly get paid, and then some. Long after you were no longer centerfold material.

I knew about Hefner’s conflicted legacy, about his role in the sexual ethics of his day which were (again) contradictory. And I knew that there were huge issues with the magazine and the mansion along the way, particularly as it related to the difference between working at one of the clubs and being in the magazine. But I never heard this side of things: that they acted as family to one another, as a bulwark against the constricted (in the 1950s) norms of the day, and as a *sisterhood*—words that would later only come to be associated with the sexual revolution and feminism. But there she was, in the Nairobi airport, a real Playmate of the Month—one of the first—singing the praises of how it changed her life and singing Hugh Hefner’s praises for still being there for her in her 70s. On her way to a three-week safari. And glowing with the vivaciousness of a life well-constructed, empowered, and well lived.

Suffice it to say that I will always remember that momentary connection turned hour-long conversation while our lives crossed in an airport waiting area. Haven’t thought about it in a long while–in fact, until Hefner’s passing and the multitude of Facebook posts one one side or another of that coin that was his life. We are all, each of us, contradictory, aren’t we? We are never all of one thing or another. It’s important to remember this in the line of making sense of things, including ourselves.

—Anna-Liisa Aunio

Does Money Make You Mean?

“Human nature has a flaw. Under conditions of apparent competition, when a hierarchy of relative winners and losers is created, no matter how, the people at the top tend to fall for something called a self-affirmation fallacy which causes them to attribute their high status to their own merits and qualities, even if they became rich by winning at some gamble which could have gone the other way. Being rich literally makes people change, makes people less sympathetic, less compassionate, less law-abiding, less honest.”—Helga Vierich, Professor of Anthropology, Yellowhead Tribal College (Spruce Grove, Alberta)

LordvoldemortAfter years of being an overweight sweetheart, this guy I knew in high school started working out, lost all of the weight, and eventually looked like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Before this dramatic transformation, he had plenty of female friends who adored him and confided in him (but alas, never hooked up with him). The girls saw him as a sweet, understanding, empathetic guy. But soon after his manly metamorphosis, he became a repulsive “bro” who used girls with the indifference of a sociopath. And, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about a garden-variety player. I’m talking about a full-blown misogynistic asshole with the conscience of a turnip! At one point I confronted him about his nasty behavior: “What happened to you? You used to be such a nice guy.” “I’m hot now,” he said, with a sleazy smile, “and you don’t have to be nice when you’re hot.”

That’s when I realized that he was, in fact, always an asshole; he was just really good at hiding it. The power that came with his newfound hotness afforded him the opportunity to behave in ways that accorded with inclinations that were always there. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorism—“You will never know for sure if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich”—follows the same logic: money doesn’t make people mean, it just allows mean people to be mean. Or, to put it another way, as Taleb once did on his Facebook page, in a clarifying remark: “People reveal their temperament when they have choices.” Paul Piff’s research into the relationship between social class and unethical behavior suggests that Taleb may be wrong about this. In numerous experiments, he has demonstrated that you can turn a completely normal person into a sociopathic jerk. It’s actually quite easy: just give them some power. If Piff is right, then it’s not so much that latent asshole tendencies are brought out by wealth but that wealth (in and of itself) can turn many perfectly normal people into assholes.

—John Faithful Hamer, Blue Notes (2017)

Being Yourself vs. Being Original

“It is unhealthy, and extremely modern, to worry over one’s originality. The Elizabethan poets used to rewrite each other’s poems to try to improve on them. That was a far superior attitude.”—Aaron Haspel

westworld3-700x525If a time machine like the one described in David Fiore’s Hypocritic Days (2014) was discovered tomorrow, and I was asked to write a travel brochure for the 21st-century West next week, I’d be sure to mention individualism as one of our era’s big attractions. The freedom to be yourself, do your own thing, choose your own profession, move to a new place, break with tradition, make a new family, be a little weird, have a little privacy: we take these things for granted far too often. Many of our ancestors would kill for what we have. Many of mine died for it.

Many of yours too.

Still, individualism is a human thing, and, like all human things, it’s flawed. And it comes with a cost. Sometimes a hefty cost. So don’t get me wrong: I know full well how much trouble the emancipation of the individual has caused. But I would nevertheless argue that the freedom to be yourself is one of our culture’s greatest accomplishments. It’s well worth fighting for, despite its drawbacks.

At some point, however, in the not-so-distant past, we seem to have collectively forgotten what it is that we were fighting for all along, what it really means to be authentic, what it really means to be yourself—and I think I know why: we’ve confused being yourself with being original.

Recognizing your own ordinariness can be hard when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have to swallow. Because we can’t all be original. Just as there’s a limited amount of beachfront property in the world, there’s a limited number of people who can be first, unique, singular, and truly original (sui generis). To some extent this is a function of the limited number of geniuses in the world. But it’s mostly a function of dumb luck: some people just happen to be the first one to think or do something new. After all, someone has to be first.

If, like Sam in Garden State (2004), you think that to be an individual, to be yourself, you’ve got to “do something that has never, ever been done before . . . throughout human existence,” you’re bound to go through life profoundly disappointed with yourself. Because this is an unrealistic goal, a silly ideal. You’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s time to return to the sensible authenticity proposed by the Roman Stoic Epictetus. In The Art of Living, he maintains that “one of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate. . . . Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”

Schopenhauer makes a similar point in “On Thinking for Yourself” (1851), wherein he stresses that being the first one to think a particular thought isn’t what’s important; what’s important is that you make a thought your own. What’s important is that this newly discovered idea enter “into the whole system of your thought” as “an integral part, a living member”; “that it stand in complete and firm relation with what you already know; that it is understood with all that underlies it and follows from it; that it wears the color, the precise shade, the distinguishing mark, of your own way of thinking . . . . This is the perfect application of Goethe’s advice to earn our inheritance for ourselves so that we may really possess it: ‘What you have inherited from your fathers, earn over again for yourselves or it will not be yours.’”

It occurs to me now, and only in retrospect, that this is probably the original purpose of that annoying high school injunction: don’t just copy it out, rephrase it in your own words. I always found that exercise tedious and pointless. Drove me nuts. Seemed like a complete and utter waste of time. After all, if Aristotle said it so well, why can’t I just quote him? I remember asking a few of my teachers questions of this stamp. Not once did I receive a good answer. And I strongly suspect that this is due to the fact that they didn’t have one to give.

But I do. Now. Finally. At 42.

Rephrasing one of, say, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, in your own words, using examples derived from your own lived experience, is in fact a worthwhile exercise. I see that now, at long last. Because to do it, and do it well, you have to truly grasp the idea Nietzsche’s referring to; and if you can truly grasp the idea, it’s yours just as much as it’s Nietzsche’s. This isn’t plagiarism; it’s pedagogy. The ideas I present to my students semester after semester are no more “mine” than the air we breathe in the classroom or the water we drink in the hall. They’re a part of a vast spiritual commons, part of the shared intellectual property of the most fascinating animal ever to walk on God’s Green Earth.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Spying on Patrick Lagacé

“I lived in this fiction that this could not happen in this country.”—Patrick Lagacé, La Presse columnist

patrick-lagaceJust as healthy immune systems with less and less to do in a hypoallergenic environment often turn on completely harmless things like cat dander and dust with a ferocity that threatens the health of the body, overstaffed police forces with less and less to do in a low-crime environment often turn on the citizenry with a ferocity that threatens the health of the body politic. Am I disgusted by the fact that the Montreal police were spying on La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé? Of course. Every cop involved, as well as the judge, should be fired, tried, and jailed. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is merely a symptom of a deeper disease.

The root cause of our police problem is that we’ve got way too many police. Crime has been dropping for decades now. And yet we spend more and more each year on law enforcement. This is a dangerously unsustainable situation! Bloated bureaucracies invariably find creative ways to justify their existence. When that bureaucracy is the Department of Education, we get buildings filled with PhDs writing stupid reports no one reads. When that bureaucracy is the Montreal Police Department, we get a dangerously militarized police force that poses a clear and present danger to the freedom and safety of the citizenry.

Singling out the bad apples isn’t going to fix this problem. If we’re going to address the root cause of this problem, we’re going to have to reduce the size of the SPVM by 25% in the next five years. There are a number of easy ways to do this: (1) institute an immediate hiring freeze and make no new hires for the next five years; (2) let no new students into police technology programs for the next five years; (3) offer ageing officers attractive early retirement packages; (4) lay off as much as 10% of the existence police force (starting with those officers who have the most complaints against them).

If the Patrick Lagacé fiasco makes anything clear, it’s that the SPVM increasingly exists, not to serve and protect the citizens of Montreal, but to serve and protect itself.

—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2016)

The Goldfish

Justification

There was an eagle soaring in a bright blue sky. “Financial security,” intoned the narrator, in a deep manly voice. “This is what it looks like. Now imagine what it feels like.” Could swear it was that guy—you know, the guy who does all the movie trailers—the one who just died. You’ve got to admit that there’s something godlike about a disembodied Father Figure who can convey divine omnipresence whilst remaining nameless and faceless. Seriously, if Netflix was a country, a religious country, with a Cold War agenda, we’d put “In the Deep Manly Voice We Trust” on our money.

But that’s not what bothered me about the commercial. It was that stupid eagle: that’s what failed to ring true. Because when I think about financial security, I imagine myself sitting by a warm fireplace in the dead of winter. I’m on a comfy old chair. Curled up with a blanket and a book. Enjoying my creature comforts. I glance periodically at the blizzard, a blizzard from hell, that’s raging out there, on the other side of the window, in the real world.

And when I try to imagine what my spirit animal might look like, my financial spirit animal, it’s not an eagle or a lion or a bear. Nothing predatory. Nothing noble. Nope. All I see is a goldfish: a sickly, unloved goldfish, who finds himself, at present, in a freshly flushed toilet.

It’s not that she’s a bad pet owner. It was an accident. She thought the goldfish was dead: really, she did. It was floating in its bowl, after all. Thing only started swimming when it hit the cold toilet water. But, at that point: well, you know how these things go: it was too late, far too late to turn back. So she decided to stay the course, stick to Plan A, and bury him in that watery grave, dead or alive.

But the goldfish didn’t go down. So she gave it another shot, and then another. She flushed him again and again and again, watching him swirl and whirl, around and around and around. But the pathetic little goldfish just wouldn’t go down.

It’s a metaphysical problem—really, it is—because we’re okay with the idea that the universe might be terrifying or unknowable or meaningless or absurd. We’re even okay with the idea that the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons or Tom Cruise might be right about everything. But we’ve never really entertained the possibility that the universe might be boring, and I mean really boring, you know, like, bean-counter boring.

But what if the goldfish is a sinner in the eyes of an angry bean-counting deity, a God of Accountants and Actuaries, Audits and Austerity Measures? What if HE punishes the profligate in the porcelain purgatory of the john? What if the goldfish deserves to suffer? Look, I doubt it, but it’s hard to be sure. Theological truths of this stamp are slippery fish: hard to grasp, and harder to hold. Regardless, this much I do know, and I know it’s enough:

I’m a goldfish, and if you’re my age or younger, you’re probably one too. We’re a generation of goldfish, a generation of redemptioners; a generation that was tricked into taking on mortgage-sized student loans; a generation that was promised passage from Proletaria to Professionalia. We paid top-dollar for the voyage to middle-class America. Yet few of us made it. Few of us arrived. Most, it seems, remain lost. Lost at sea.

There’s this stupid poster that sold really well when I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s. It depicts an opulent mansion and a four-car garage filled with assorted sports cars underneath this obnoxious message: JUSTIFICATION FOR HIGHER EDUCATION. It was the kind of thing teenage guys had on their bedroom wall, sandwiched between posters of Cindy Crawford and Mötley Crüe. The poster’s message to my generation was pretty clear: Wanna get rich? Do whatever you have to do to get a higher education.

Though it pains me to admit it, I’m pretty sure I wanted one of these posters during my Alex P. Keaton phase. But I didn’t get one for fear that my hippie mom would disown me. Or simply drop dead of a heart attack. Imagine, for a moment, how horrified a hard-core fundamentalist Christian mom would be if she found a Hustler centerfold on her teenage son’s bedroom wall: well, no joke, that’s precisely how thoroughly disgusted my hippie mom would have been if she saw this crass consumerist poster on my bedroom wall. It represents a value system which is the very antithesis of my mother’s value system.

Be that as it may, knowing what I know now, it’s hard not to cringe when I look at this poster. Because it’s not only gross, it’s also profoundly untrue. My wife and I went deep into debt to fund our higher education (close to $200,000). And, like many of our friends in their forties, we’re still paying for it! Indeed, my guess is we won’t be debt-free until our early fifties. We didn’t get the five sports cars and a mansion. We got mortgage-sized student loans and job insecurity. So looking at this propaganda poster now, in 2016, is sort of like watching one of those insane DDT commercials from the 1950s: you know, the ones wherein smiling kids are being sprayed with a fine mist of DDT as they play in the park. The DDT spray is supposed to be perfectly safe. Indeed, it’s supposed to be good for the kids. But we know it’s really REALLY not! We know they’re actually being exposed to something dangerous and damaging, something that’s gonna have all sorts of horrible long-term consequences.

Living paycheck-to-paycheck is like getting stalked by a hungry lion that never quite catches you, and never goes away. And debt’s the leg weights that render you fast enough to jog but too slow to run.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Talkers, Doers, Bullshitters, and Dullards

Ty_Cobb_Paul_Thompson,_c1918The difference between a talker, a doer, and a bullshitter is merely a matter of degree. Bullshitters rarely follow through on their schemes and scams and master plans. My guess is that less than one in ten see the light of day. Talkers are much better at following through on their bright ideas. Maybe one in three bear fruit. Doers are better still, but, in my experience, only marginally so. Half of what they talk about actually happens.

Talkers, doers, and bullshitters are hard to tell apart precisely because they’re all members of the same ambitious species. Their true opposite, type-wise, is the lackluster dullard, who takes no risks, and dreams no dreams.

It’s good to remember that Babe Ruth, the greatest player in baseball history, was happy to hit but one out of every three balls; Ty Cobb, baseball’s record-holder, had a career batting average of .366 (meaning he missed the ball at least half the time). It’s also good to remember that most successful entrepreneurs have gone bankrupt at least once in the past (my friend Jaffer Ali is a case in point).

It’s easy to be overly judgmental of failure when you’re a dullard who’s never stepped up to the plate. Those who’ve actually tried to make things happen in the world are, in my experience, far more understanding.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

QUESTION EVERYTHING?

“Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”—John 20:24-25

Question-EverythingA few years ago I was asked to buy a t-shirt. It was part of a fundraiser for a local philosophy department’s student association. The slogan blazoned across the chest read: QUESTION EVERYTHING. It made me smile, the way that cheesy Hallmark cards often make me smile. Something so cute and quaint and noble about this notion: question everything. Philosophy’s all about questioning stuff, right? So what could be more natural than a philosophy student questioning everything? It’s a no-brainer, right? In Everything (2015), Aaron Haspel defines in a “no-brainer” as “an idea that is extremely persuasive as long as you don’t think about it.” Question everything is an idea of this kind.

We simply don’t have the time or energy to questioning everything. We all rely upon people and things we don’t understand. We trust the people on the highway not to veer into oncoming traffic. We trust that the food we’re eating isn’t poisoned. We trust that the people we leave our children with aren’t going to hurt them. We trust that the money we use has real value. We trust that the people who say they love us actually love us, despite the fact that we can never really be sure. We can never really know another person’s heart, not with certainty. And so on and so forth. We are swimming in a sea of trust each and every day.

People who’ve had their faith in the world profoundly shaken (by a psychotic break, a horrible accident, a devastating betrayal) people who actually question everything, are broken, profoundly dysfunctional shells of their former selves. At Projet PAL in Verdun, I worked with people who were recovering from severe mental health problems. What’s hardest for many of them is that they feel like they can no longer trust their own senses. They’re tormented by questions: Am I really talking to you? Are you really real? Is this really how I feel? Can I trust my feelings?

The same is true of those who’ve lived through a devastating betrayal. We’ve all known people who’ve been cheated on and habitually lied to, but imagine what it must be like to be Paula Rader, the woman who discovered that the man she was married to for 34 years (Dennis Rader, the father of her children) was the notorious serial killer known as the BTK killer. She thought her husband was a good man. They went to Christ Lutheran every Sunday morning. He was even elected president of the church council. How hard it must be for Paula to trust people now. How hard it must be for her to trust her own judgment. She must be tormented by questions: How could I have been so stupid? So blind? Hard as it must be, the Paula Raders of this world won’t be able to resume anything like a normal life until they begin to trust again, until they learn how to have faith again. Because faith isn’t a choice. It’s a necessity.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

Angie Adelin (1979-2016)

75594_1720934958123053_8994965097951766679_nWe’re all here today because of mistakes we didn’t pay for. We’ve all dodged a thousand bullets to get to where we are today. And if we’re around next year, it’ll be because we dodged dozens more. Much as I’d like to, I just can’t bring myself to believe that life (or “the Universe”) is nearly as fair as the Law of Karma suggests. All to the contrary, I think the world we live in is a profoundly unfair place. The great English Reformer John Bradford saw this with unusual clarity. That’s why he mouthed these words to himself so often: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Angie was the kind of person you’d wanna be friends with in prison: incredibly tough, incredibly funny, and incredibly charismatic. My two favorite Orange Is the New Black characters remind me of her. Angie was a really good friend to my sister when my sister needed a really good friend. I’ll always be thankful to her for that. And I’ll never forget all those wacky working-class wives tales she’d recount, with deadly seriousness, at my mother’s kitchen table. She once told me that if you scared a pregnant woman her baby would be born with a tail. Oh Angie: you were such a great storyteller! Sorry your story had to end so soon.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

In Praise of the Welfare State

The-Wire-HD-BluI learned about white privilege from the streets, not the classroom. My teachers were teenage criminals who spoke in plain, easily-accessible English (or French), not jargon-laden academics with PhDs in sensitivity. The lessons I received from them were practical and experiential, not theoretical. And they made me pretty good at stealing stuff for a spell. Like many bratty kids from my neighborhood, I went through a shoplifting phase when I was a teenager. Like many other social animals, such as wolves, my friends and I hunted in packs and employed a coördinated strategy that played upon the weaknesses of our prey.

Our intended prey was the store staff; their racial prejudices were the weaknesses we exploited. We were four, more often than not: one black kid and three white kids. After carefully choosing a store, we’d enter it separately. The black kid would immediately attract all of the staff’s attention. It was amazing! The kid didn’t have to do anything suspicious. Didn’t have to smell like weed. Didn’t have to dress like a thugged-out rapper. Didn’t have to wear dark sunglasses. Nothing. He just had to be black. That was enough. The staff would be totally fixated on the black kid and follow him around the store while me and the other three white kids robbed the place blind. The four of us would meet up about an hour later, usually at a metro station, and divvy up the spoils. Incidentally, the dude who finally caught me at Galeries d’Anjou was a sweet, middle-aged Haitian guy. He caught me and my degenerate friends precisely because he wasn’t blinded by racism.

I met my black doppelgänger at a rooftop party in Baltimore. It was 2000 and we were both 25. We had the same metrosexual mannerisms, same ridiculously loud laugh, same taste in music, same taste in literature, same strange obsession with snakes and salamanders. But it gets weirder still: because, as it turns out, we were both raised by single-moms on welfare, in rough neighborhoods. Both of us went through a super religious phase in our early teen years, followed by a troublemaker phase. Both of us changed schools often and repeated the 10th Grade. I could go on and on: it was eerie. And yet our lives couldn’t be more different: I was in Baltimore on a full scholarship, in a PhD program at Hopkins, whilst he had just gotten out of jail. Six days ago! He’d been in prison for the last seven years—seven years!—for drug offenses that wealthy Hopkins undergrads regularly get probation for.

My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. And he grew up in Baltimore. Because I grew up white. And he grew up black. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get to go to well-funded public schools that provide them with a high-quality education, an education which can take them wherever they wish to go. And he grew up in a place where poor kids are forced to go to crappy public schools which are crumbling, crowded, and chronically underfunded—schools that provide even their best students with a substandard education that hobbles them for life. Because I grew up in a public housing project that was clean and affordable—a place that allowed us to live our lives with a certain amount of dignity. And he grew up moving from one overpriced cockroach-infested shithole to the next. Because I grew up in a place where poor kids get the same universal healthcare available to children of the rich. And he grew up waiting nine hours to see a nurse at the free clinic. Because I grew up in a place that gives bratty kids lots and lots of chances to get their shit together. And he grew up in a place where a few stupid mistakes can seal your fate for years.

My life could have been his life. But it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Because I grew up in Canada. I grew up in a secular society informed by quintessentially Christian values: such as sharing, forgiveness, and compassion. What is the modern welfare state, after all, if not an amazingly ambitious application of Christian ethics? Is it perfect? Of course not. It’s a flawed and imperfect work-in-progress, like everything else in this fallen world of ours. But when did we stop seeing how breathtakingly beautiful it is? Why did we allow sneering cynics to make us feel so thoroughly ashamed of ourselves? What’s wrong with our values? What’s wrong with trying to take care of each other? What’s wrong with trying to institutionalize the virtues Jesus stood for in a social safety net? We keep reaching for fig leaves, friends, when we really ought to be dancing in the streets, celebrating in the alleys, and shouting from the rooftops: Thank God Almighty for the Welfare State!

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

“God can afford to be gentler and more understanding now that he’s not responsible for everything.”—George Murray, Glimpse (2010)

1755_Lisbon_earthquake
1755 copper engraving showing Lisbon in flames and a tsunami overwhelming the ships in the harbor. (Source: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 261st anniversary of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, a natural disaster of biblical proportions which shaped the second half of 18th century as much as the Holocaust shaped the second half of the 20th century. “Lisbon” was the 18th-century West’s “9/11”, and the modern world we live in is unthinkable without it.

The initial earthquake occurred at around 9:40 a.m. on November 1st, 1755. It was a Saturday, a high holiday, All Saints Day. Thousands were crushed to death instantly when the buildings they were in came crashing down on top of them. But eyewitnesses counted these victims among the lucky, because what lay in store for many of the survivors was far worse.

Most houses had kitchen fires burning 24/7 in 18th-century Europe, and most of these houses were made of wood, so, by 10:00 a.m., densely populated Lisbon was engulfed in flames. It was an incredibly hot fire which raged on and on for more than five days. Many of those who survived the initial earthquake were, quite literally, burned alive. Their screams and shouts were still audible to many of those who fled to the safety of the sandy beaches below the city. But even for these poor souls, the horror was far from over.

What they didn’t know, what they couldn’t have known, was that the earthquake’s epicenter was out at sea, in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 km from the coast. Forty minutes after the initial earthquake, a giant tsunami hit the coast and rushed up the Tagus River. It drowned many of those who managed to survive the earthquake and the fire. Between 10,000 and 100,000 people died that day. It was one of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history, and, arguably, one of the most horrific.

Death by earthquake. Death by fire. Death by tsunami. You didn’t have to be particularly devout to see the hand of an angry God in these events. Many leading theologians were quick to blame the victims of the Lisbon Earthquake, much as the American evangelist Pat Robertson blamed the victims of the Haitian Earthquake in 2009. But this simply didn’t ring true to worldly 18th-century Europeans. After all, Lisbon wasn’t an especially sinful place. London and Paris were far more fun, far more deserving of fire and brimstone. And besides, numerous eyewitness accounts attested to the fact that some of Lisbon’s whorehouses and gambling dens remained standing after the earthquake, untouched and unscathed, whilst nearby nunneries and churches were reduced to rubble and ruin.

The death and destruction defied definition. It didn’t seem to make any sense, not in any simplistic Christian sense: which is precisely why alternate explanations for natural disasters like earthquakes, explanations based on science—explanations that removed God from the equation (via deism or even atheism)—took off in the late 18th century. If the worldview of the ancient Hebrews was shaped by a Great Flood, the worldview of the modern West was shaped by a Great Earthquake.

One of modernity’s greatest achievements is the realization that natural disasters like earthquakes have nothing to do with us, that we need not see the wrath of Zeus in every thunderclap, the displeasure of Poseidon in every menacing wave. The origins of that realization are to be found in the smoldering ashes of Lisbon.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)