Beauty, Evil and Death in Venice, Part 2

On the vagaries of fate, nature and God.

Posted Aug 03, 2014

Incidents like this beg the big question: Why do such tragic calamities happen? Was it the fate of those injured or killed by this freak lightning strike to be there that day, in precisely the wrong place at precisely the wrong time? Or was it just a totally random occurence? A matter of chance or bad luck. How, if at all, can we make sense of these seemingly senseless and, in this case, literally shocking catastrophes? The perennial problem of evil, suffering and death is certainly one of life's "ultimate concerns," to use philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich's term, something with which most of us struggle, and one which in existential therapy we try to openly and directly address, along with other existential concerns such as meaninglessness, loneliness, responsibility, freedom and destiny.

Lightning can obviously be dangerous, destructive and deadly. But it has also been implicated in both the creation of the universe and of life on Earth. Lightning is essential for maintaining existence on this planet, cleaning the atmosphere, creating nitrates that fertilize the soil, sparking forest fires that, by destroying dead or diseased trees and brush, clear and prepare the land for new growth, and is believed to have been the first source of fire for early humans. In this sense, as in the myth of Prometheus, man truly stole fire from the lightning of the gods, and learned to use it creatively, to stay warm, to cook, to forge metals, to provide illumination, and generally, to survive harsh and inhospitable environments. And, as a result, the course of history was forever changed.

According to the local paper (The Argonaut, July 31, 2014), people in the immediate vicinity of these multiple lightning strikes at the very edge of the Pacific, where green sea meets golden sand, said it felt like an earthquake, with one witness stating " 'It sounded like the world was breaking.' " Small wonder our ancestors saw the awesome phenomenon of lightning as emanating from the gods, as in the case of the great Greek god, Zeus. Or the Norse god Thor. Or the Roman god Jupiter. Or the Hindu deity Indra. These immortal and sometimes temperamental gods were believed to be the origin of lightning, wielding it as their weapon when angered or offended. Indeed, the ancient Hebrew deity Yahweh was said to utilize lightning bolts as "arrows of god."

Such archetypal myths depict the daimonic or dual nature of lightning, in both its destructive and creative aspects.The Greeks considered sacred certain spots where lightning struck, dedicating these locations as sites upon which to build their temples. Lightning for them and other ancient cultures was a manifestation of divinity. Even today, insurance companies still refer to such violent natural phenomena as "acts of God." Lightning is a fearsome force which when harnessed and controlled by humanity, as by the gods, something we see frequently in films about reanimating the dead, could be used for constructive purposes such as providing unlimited electric power. Thus, lightning is closely associated with both death and life.

All this amounts to a way of trying to make some sense of such potentially deadly yet beautiful, fascinating and awesome natural phenomena, and of a seemingly meaningless and terrifying universe in which we are totally vulnerable to these powerful forces or nature. If, on the other hand, we reject the attempt to attribute some meaning or significance to these events, concluding instead, unlike our forebears, that in such phenomena there is no rhyme or reason, no meaning, no religious or transpersonal significance, no divine intervention, no influence of fate or destiny, then we are left with the absolute randomness of existence, and the ever-present possibility of death and destruction in each moment. And we are faced with the anxiety and insecurity that inevitably accompanies acknowledging this stark existential fact of life: That we live in a dangerous, violent and unpredictable world, and that nature or the cosmos is not the least bit concerned with what happens to us one way or the other.

Strangely, in what feels like deja vu, I pondered precisely the same question in a post here almost one year ago to the day regarding another tragedy at Venice Beach that took place during my summer vacation:

"Last Saturday evening, as the brilliant Southern California sun descended slowly into the Pacific Ocean, with throngs of vacationing tourists and lively locals out enjoying the natural beauty and cultural color of Venice Beach on a warm midsummer's night, evil reared its ugly head. Not natural evil, like earthquake, tsunami or tornado. But rather human evil. This evidently deliberate evil deed has saddened and shocked the Venice community, and touched me personally, starkly juxtaposing the ever-present existential realities of evil, death and beauty. It happened toward the conclusion of what, for me, was a beautiful month-long summer vacation. . . .

Toward the tail end of my own recent vacation, most of which was spent close to home here in Los Angeles, I was out riding my bicycle, heading toward Venice Beach. The weather was glorious, with some white, puffy clouds drifting lazily across the azure sky. While waiting at a corner for the light to change before crossing the street, a happy-looking young couple approached me, haltingly asking directions. "Can you tell us where to find the Big Blue Bus?" They looked like they were in love, and spoke with foreign accents. I asked where they were from, and was told they were visiting from Italy, Bologna to be exact. We very briefly exchanged some words there on the corner about the beauty of Italy and other pleasantries. All in less than a minute.Then the light changed, and I rode off, leaving them behind. I spent the day on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, riding along the palm tree-lined bike path that snakes through the sand providing a picture-perfect panoramic view of the Pacific filled with white sailboats. Eventually, I stopped at my favorite cafe for some leisurely brunch, and watched the never-ending parade of people along the boardwalk, framed by the sparkling sea and crystalline blue sky in the background. "Another day in paradise," as we locals sometimes say.

It was not until Sunday, two days later, that I heard about what had happened: At six o'clock Saturday evening, a man allegedly deliberately drove his speeding car (perhaps not insignificantly, a black Dodge Avenger), onto the crowded, pedestrians-only Venice Beach boardwalk, mowing down  sixteen strollers and merchants, killing one. It took place just adjacent to the cafe on the boardwalk (which is not wooden boards at all, but rather a wide concrete walkway or promenade lined with various stores and vendors) where I enjoyed brunch the day before. According to television news reports, the single fatality was a 32-year-old woman from Italy. Alice Gruppioni. She had just gotten married two weeks ago, and was on vacation, honeymooning here with her Italian husband, Christian, who was also injured, though not critically. Upon hearing this, I was stunned and had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then it was further reported they were both from Bologna. The photograph of the smiling couple flashed on the television screen confirmed what I already instinctively knew: These were the two tourists I had chatted with the previous day. They had been viciously assaulted allegedly by a 38 -year-old homeless man with a troubled past and history of substance abuse. . . .

Sadly, this evil deed followed on the heels of a mass shooting at nearby Santa Monica College earlier this summer by yet another troubled young man, in which six bystanders died including the apparently mentally unstable perpetrator at the hands of police. Amidst the undeniable beauty of the golden beaches, undulating green sea, balmy breezes and swaying palm trees, there is always trouble in paradise. Evil is afoot, just as it was in the biblical Garden of Eden or in the Book of Job. And none of us are immune. For those uncomfortable with theological and philosphical terms such as "evil," "Satan" or the "devil," maybe it can all merely be chalked up to bad luck for these innocent victims. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps even to fate: "It was their time to die." But what is "bad luck"? Why do some people have bad luck, while others have good luck? Why does someone have an enduring run of bad or good luck? Is it really just random, meaningless "luck of the draw"? Or might  there be mysterious outer and inner forces, such as fate or the Devil-- or even what we psychologists call "the unconscious"--at work that determine or influence what we call "luck"? If truth be told, these are all efforts to make sense of and explain such seemingly senseless incidents and the archetypal reality of evil in general." (See the prior post here.)

In that heart-wrenching assault last summer, I called what happened a manifestation of "human evil." An evil deed. But clearly a lightning strike, like an earthquake, hurricane or tsunami, is not a human but rather a natural phenomenon. Of course, it could be argued that since human beings themselves are also a natural phenomenon, the evil we do is ultimately, like lightning, part of the natural order of things. Or, in religious terms, that these are both expressions of "God's will."  Yet, there is a distinct difference between what we might call "natural evil," which causes suffering or death, and "human evil," in which cruelty and hostility are intentionally inflicted upon innocent victims. (See my prior posts.)

Unfortunately, the existential truth is that sometimes, even honeymoons or beach vacations can turn tragic. Consider, for example, the still unsolved case of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared (probably a victim of murder at the hands of the now convicted and incarcerated Joran van der Sloot) while on holiday in Aruba (see my prior posts). And the more recent downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the eastern Ukraine, a commercial passenger jet filled with happy vacationers, tourists and other travelers. Not to mention the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 (see my prior post). To cite the great songwriter/singer/musician/poet Joni Mitchell from "Amelia" on her soulful Hejira album, "Where some have found their paradise, others just come to harm." Was it their fate to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Or was this too merely a random and most unfortunate accident? Bad luck. Something that could befall any one of us at any given place and time.

When confronted starkly with these horrendous events, there is no denying the dark side of existence. Life can be tragic, cruel, brutal, horrific. Evil is an existential fact of life. (See "The Psychology of Evil.") Suffering is inescapable. Death is inevitable and an ever present possibility. As we know, some psychological studies suggest that people suffering from depression perceive this tragic and shadowy aspect of life more realistically than most. But, I would add that they also tend to focus more exclusively on it, to the exclusion of life's positive aspects such as love, goodness and beauty. Which can perpetuate depression. This is one reason why so-called "positive psychology" encourages emphasizing the brighter side of life. However, unlike positive psychology, existential therapy recognizes that it is only in the unmitigated conscious confronting and accepting of life's dark side that a full appreciation of life's positive aspects is made possible. Sugar-coating or minimizing life's tragic nature leads only to naivete and neurosis. However, imbuing it with some meaning may make human existence more bearable.

Evil, suffering and death are inextricably related to beauty. "Death is the mother of beauty," says Wallace Stevens. "The sublime," writes Friedrich Nietzsche, is "the artistic conquest of the awful." There can be great beauty in tragedy, sadness, even in suffering. Evil can give birth to creativity. This paradoxical link can be heard and seen expressed in the greatest artistic creations throughout human history. Ugliness and beauty are but two polar sides of being, and both must be seen, accepted and appreciated as such. We may never become perfect Buddhas by no longer judgmentally distinguishing between the two, but we must learn to accept reality as it is. No small challenge.

Paradoxically, it may be that the more of life's dark side, negativity, or what Tillich called "non-being" we can tolerate, take in and accept without too much denial, dissociation or minimization, the more sensitivity, receptivity and access we have to the beauty of being. But it is, for all of us, so easy to lose sight of life's beauty at times. To be consumed by darkness. Especially during  difficult, trying times. And when confronted with the hideous visage of evil, tragedy and trauma, be it natural or man-made.( See my prior post.) "Beauty," writes psychologist Rollo May (1986), is "the experience that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. . . Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one's sense of being alive. Beauty gives us not only a feeling of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment a timelessness, a repose--which is why we speak of beauty as being eternal. Beauty is the mystery which enchants us." Beauty, like music, not only "soothes the savage breast," but nurtures and restores the soul.

But there is a big difference between the serene and subtle beauty of, for instance, a sunset (such as the glorious one I saw this evening, glowing fiery red), and that of a lightning bolt thundering across the sky. While the former my be enchanting, peaceful and relaxing, the latter contains all the dynamism of the daimonic, which, by definition, is both divine and diabolical, beauteous and hideous, thrilling and horrifying, fascinating and frightening, creative and destructive. And it always potentially poses a direct and immediate threat to our existence, our safety, our sense of existential security. Such phenomena evoke in us a mixture of the mysterium tremendum and mysterium horrendum, as Rudoph Otto (1958) notes, and may be said to elicit a sense of the numinous: the "holy" or the awe-ful experience of "daemonic dread." For early man, this was the experience of God or gods. Or, sometimes, Satan or demons. And as C.G. Jung (1959) confessed, "To this day 'God' is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse."

A lightning display is hands down one of nature's most beautiful, dramatic and impressive phenomena. But it can cause evil, wreaking havoc and raining devastation and destruction from the heavens. Lightning is a manifestation of raw, primal power. And, like anger, for example, it is daimonic in its duality as both destructive and creative energy. At all events, it is something, at least for now, beyond our control. Something mysterious, scary, and at the same time exhilirating. (Our man-made firework shows, created by the controlled but potentially dangerous use of violent explosions, can evoke similar feelings on a smaller scale.) To witness lightning, to be in close proximity to it, and to the thunder accompanying it, is a wondrous experience, but one which forces us to face our own comparative powerlessness, vulnerability and mortality. I can vividly recall my own reactions to the intense electrical storms that would unpredictably constellate over the magnificent lake of Zurich in Switzerland during my many visits there over the years : it was one of fear, trembling, beauty, animation, reverence and awe all at the same time. It always made me feel more alive, invigorated, alert.

As Rollo May (1985) contends, "no topics could be more important than beauty, God, death." This applies to life and psychotherapy alike. Existential psychotherapy is distinguished from most treatment approaches today by its confrontation of life's ultimate concerns, including the phenomena of evil and death. Existential therapy recognizes that clients or patients need to contemplate life's awesome mysteries as well as coming to terms with the banal and sometimes brutal facts of existence. Contemporary existential psychotherapy provides the opportunity, when appropriate, to grapple with the full spectrum of these profound spiritual and existential questions that, not coincidentally, tend typically to correspond closely to people's presenting problems and symptoms. The purpose of today's existential therapy, in this sense, is to assist patients in finding their own philosophical footing or spiritual perspective in life, from which they will eventually be able to live independent of therapy and deal with the stark existential facts of life and with present or future existential crises from a position of inner resilience, strength, and stability, while being better able to savor, appreciate, and be fully present to life's sublime pleasures, beauties, and wonders.