On Bad Omens
By John Taylor; 2010 July 11, Rahmat 18, 167 BE
In case you did not notice it, we just suffered through a heat wave.
Our family has chosen not to have air conditioning; instead, we use ceiling fans. Fortunately, we do not listen to weather forecasts in the mass media, so the heat wave was almost over before we realized that we were undergoing a heat wave. Most human suffering comes from bad expectations.
My daughter is attending summer school at Hagersville High School to make up her mathematics course. Normally she takes a school bus but last Wednesday, in the sweltering heat, I drove her to school. Our car does not have air conditioning either, to speak of, so I drove with the windows down. Walking around this small town -- it is slightly smaller than Dunnville -- I discovered that it was market day. Hagersville has a much better farmer's market --by "better," I mean that its prices are actually lower than the grocery stores, and it has farmers who are willing to dicker; one even dropped his prices at closing time, "So that I won't have to carry it all home." That is my kind of market. I purchased a basket of soft cherries for a quarter of the normal price.
I had promised to pick up Silvie after school, so I drove slowly around town, checking out the attractions. I must have been going twenty kilometres an hour when a heavy object dropped onto my hood. It immediately disappeared, but a fluff of down on the windshield wipers indicated that it must have been a bird. It was so hot, birds were literally dropping dead out of the sky. That has never happened to me before.
I spent a few hours in the Hagersville branch of the Haldimand Public Library, which had its air conditioner turned up so high that it was almost cold. I basked in the cold, as I read over the draft of People Without Borders that I had printed out for the occasion. I was not pleased with what I was reading. I hung on until it was almost time to pick up Silvie.
Then there was an explosion. A woman ran in to say we should evacuate. Another couple of booms and a power outage had everybody out in a few minutes. I walked across the street and saw the source of the problem. Sparks were flying from a wire across from the library. Finally, in a shower of sparks the power line to the library fell onto the road. A couple of concerned citizens warned cars away turning onto the road with the live wire. The fire station was right next to the library, so I walked over to tell them, but the doors were locked. I do not believe in cell phones, so I left the others to contact the authorities.
The delay from the explosions meant that Silvie had already left in her school bus when I arrived at the High School, so I drove home alone. Later on we were sitting in the living room when another bird hit the living room window and dropped dead to the ground. It was a starling. Again, that has never happened before. I am enough of an ancient history buff to realize that if such things had happened to somebody living anywhere in the Ancient World, they would surely have regarded these occurrences as bad omens.
I did not worry about omens, but I was taken aback. As a Baha'i, I do believe that things happen for a reason; there is a wisdom behind every occurrence, even though there are also adequate scientific explanations as well. Still, I had been listening to lectures about the history of science. The belief in sympathetic magic dominated science until only a few centuries ago. Sympathetic magic is the idea that there are unseen links between objects that we now regard as entirely coincidental; for example, the "cordial" (latin for "heart") was a liquid medication that had things like sunflower seeds and gold dust in it. This was because of the magical idea that "heart" was connected to "sun," and "gold."
I would not have written about any of this if I had not come across the following passage at the start of Zenophon's Memorabilia, his memoirs about his experiences with his beloved teacher, Socrates.
"In the first place, what evidence did they produce that Socrates refused to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state?"
Like Plato, Zenophon was indignant about the false accusations that ended in the execution of Socrates. Unlike Plato, Zenophon emphasized the piety of Socrates in his defense. He continues,
"Was it that he did not sacrifice? or that he dispensed with divination? On the contrary, he was often to be seen engaged in sacrifice, at home or at the common altars of the state. Nor was his dependence on divination less manifest. Indeed that saying of his, "A divinity [or: a divine something] gives me a sign," was on everybody's lips. So much so that, if I am not mistaken, it lay at the root of the imputation that he imported novel divinities; though there was no greater novelty in his case than in that of other believers in oracular help, who commonly rely on omens of all sorts: the flight or cry of birds, the utterances of man, chance meetings, or a victim's entrails."
Oracles and divination no doubt acted like weather forecasts do for us. If you believe you know what is going to happen, be it a bird falling from the sky, or what the weatherman says it is going to be like, you are in effect throwing an emotional wrench into the works of how you relate to the world, to the past and the future. As I said at the start, even when the weatherman is right, it does not make it easier to take what is coming. Anticipation is often worse than the event.
Finally, I did hear a report in the news, which I found surprising. It seems that this heat wave was not a local phenomenon. It was happening around the world, from New York to Beijing to London. This may have happened before, but I do not remember such an event. A global heat wave? Surely, that is global warming at work.
When I heard that this was a global phenomenon, I began to rethink the divination thing. Maybe birds falling from the sky really is an omen. An ancient would be in a tizzy about such a dire event, and so should we. We know more about the science of global warming, but that should put us in a tizzy even more. The sort of tizzy that leads to act to save our skins. In that respect, we have no advantage over the ancients, since action, sacrifice, comes from a place beyond the comprehension of logic or science. As Socrates put it, "A divine something gives me a sign."