The Essential Question

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy brought us the eerily familiar image of ordinary Americans sifting through the rubble of their former homes, trying desperately to salvage a few items of monetary or emotional value. We have seen this sad scene time and again: in the Great Plains after tornadoes, in the high country after forest fires, along shorelines after fierce tropical storms.

In the last days of October, New Yorkers tasted the full range of home-destroying tragedies. Wind-swept fires destroyed much of Breezy Point, Queens (the borough I happen to know best). Long Beach residents and Staten Islanders endured severe flooding due to the storm surge. High winds tore roofs off homes, turning household furnishings and prized possessions into so much soggy and scattered debris.


Although I long ago moved away from my New York roots, I found myself by chance in the city when Sandy visited with such fury. I was struck by how much of the media coverage in the immediate aftermath of the storm focused on the traumatic experience of families returning to their ruined homes and rummaging to salvage what they could before the bulldozers arrived. The sad scene I associate with wind-swept Kansas, forest fire-prone Colorado and below-sea-level New Orleans was now playing out in neighborhoods I used to bike through as a boy. I won’t think of this type of scene, which is always in danger of falling into cliché, in quite the same way again.

As far as I could tell, the keenest desire of those storm victims was not to locate their lost high-tech electronic gadgets or fancy silver-plated flatware or even expensive jewelry that might have survived the wind and rain and fire. Instead, it was caches of lovingly preserved family photographs that they most eagerly sought to salvage. Squeals of delight could be heard in storm-ravaged neighborhoods when someone came upon a scrapbook or framed photo of loved ones—irreplaceable re-minders of good times past and of people who played a special role in their lives. The photos might have become tattered or faded or soggy, but they were still dear.

I recount these events not simply to invoke a “feel good” or even a “feel deep” story, but in a way to pay tribute to my late Jesuit confrere and fellow columnist John Kavanaugh. One of my deep regrets is that, despite common academic interests in ethics and common pursuits in religious life, we never met. But if you have even on rare occasions read his wise counsel in this space or in his numerous books and articles on such topics as the perils of consumerism and the dignity of all human life, you surely appreciate the profound ethical concerns he raised and the probing questions he relentlessly posed.

If I may dare to summarize the life work of one of my absolute heroes, let me venture the claim that Father Kavanaugh spent his life pursuing one pivotal question: What are the most real and valuable things in life?

The people of Staten Island, Queens and Long Beach join anew the billions around the world who experience deeper, more far-reaching and long-persisting problems that have forced them to ponder this question. Beyond the distractions of our materialistic, media-soaked and celebrity-obsessed age, what really counts? In times of war and conflict, under threat of oppression and natural disasters, we seem to rediscover the answers: our loved ones. Homes can be rebuilt, possessions can be replaced, but our love of people endures. And our photos certainly have a unique way of sparking memories of family and friends. Every picture does tell a story; snapshots, posed or candid, can capture a relationship.

Where, then, is God in this reflection on life’s essentials? We hardly need to invoke the Deity here, for God stands behind and within all the human relationships we value. To speak of human dignity, as John Kavanaugh did so often and so eloquently, is to point to the majesty of the very author of life. The link between love of God and love of neighbor should by now be transparent in all Christian circles. And when love of Christ grows, all of humanity becomes that much more lovable.

Hurricane Sandy surely accomplished great destruction, but it also offers some valuable instruction.

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