Last week I heard Colin Powell speak here at Vanderbilt, and during the Q&A session afterward, he was asked about the current political situation in Russia, Ukraine, and the Crimea. He gave his opinion and some predictions, but also pointed out that, as far as he could tell, the American public didn’t seem too concerned. “I think most people are more interested in the missing plane,” he said.
Well, yes. Along with people all over the globe, we are still waiting to hear whether the ongoing searches will yield any new information or definitive answers. It’s been over two weeks now since Malaysia Airlines flight 370 vanished with 239 people aboard. Some of us are more interested in the story than others, and of course those who gravitate towards conspiracy theories are having a heyday. But I think most of us, to some degree, are fascinated by this mystery. It confronts us with the limits of technology, reminding us that for as much as our whereabouts and goings-on seem ubiquitously tracked and recorded, it is still possible to vanish completely from the face of the earth. In a 200-foot jumbo jet. With hundreds of other people.
It jars something deeply ingrained in our human psyche, I suspect, when we come up against the limits of our human capabilities in such a striking way. Two weeks and two dozen nations later, the search for the plane has yielded little more than confusing, conflicting data and high hopes about every new piece of floating debris. If nothing else, this saga reminds us how big the earth is, how much of it is covered with water, how little we really have dominion over. I think it insults human pride; it’s a cosmic embarrassment of sorts to be exposed this way, to have our astounding technological accomplishments relativized by the unpredictable and the unknown. Maybe that’s part of the motivation for the massive search efforts. We are gluttons for certainty, spurred on by the allure of sophisticated data. We are loathe to admit that the vicissitudes of the human heart and mind can so easily override our programmed expectations. A black box will only ever tell us so much. I wonder when we will reach the point where we admit that we know as much as we can ever know.
And at the same time, somehow, we are enlivened by the mystery of it all. I don’t mean the macabre side of this tragedy, whatever its details are. But the fundamental mysteriousness of it, the way it piques our curiosity and sparks our imaginations. It lures us into the range of possibilities. We have deep yearnings, I believe, to dwell in the sorts of liminal places where we possess no explanations but where we simply are caught up in the experience of awe and wonder. When life prompts us to ask, “How can this be?,” we thirst for answers, and yet we will learn as much by simply exploring the possibilities, as exhilarating and terrifying as they may be. We find creative potential in the blurry space between “we know exactly what will happen” and “anything can happen.” Our humanness is rooted in the asking, not in having the answers.