That title quote is from the novel The Last Days of America by Paul E Erdman. The book is a frightening tale of how an economic crisis could lead to major political upheavals and shifts in the global balance of powers, and bring civilization as we know it to the brink of extinction by nuclear holocaust. When people realize they don’t have much time anymore to enjoy the everyday mundane benefits and facilities they had always taken for granted, they begin for the first time to realize what precious blessings these amenities had been all along. Open the tap, and there is always water flowing out for use to your heart’s content. Gasoline running low in your car…just take it to the gas station around the corner. Your kitchen cupboard needs to be replenished? Just call the grocery and they deliver it right at your doorstep, until…
Until these seemingly little facilities and services suddenly stop, and people are desperately trying to flee a city to escape impending devastation by invading forces. Or there is a deadly earthquake, and the most pressing thought of the people is not how to best spend the evening out, but how to find some unpolluted water to drink and where to find some safe shelter for the night. Or there is a roaring tide of water heading toward your house and your only thought is how best to keep your children from being swept away in the tsunami. Today, thank God, none of these things are happening to you or me. And we can continue to enjoy our daily blessings to the full. But for millions of others, these daily little appurtenances of modern civilization is the difference between survival and death.
I was in a Middle East country during the first Gulf war. When the conflict broke out, the countries close to the war zone began to quiver in fearful anticipation. Throughout the city, common household commodities like bottled water were quickly swept off the supermarket shelves. My close two colleagues and I made plans to flee to our home countries. One of them, a young man in his twenties had recently married his beautiful sweetheart. All the battle scenes televised by CNN, all the usual frenzy of a battle brought on the screen in edited form, somehow made the whole war somewhat surreal for this young colleague. You know how it is…soldiers tat-tat-tatting away their enemies with their AK-47s, the explosions and vehicles thrown twenty feet into the air, a plane on a strafing pass at the convoy below…the sounds and colors can raise the adrenalin level in one who hasn’t actually seen these actions in real life. But when these sounds and sights are happening a few miles outside your door, you have a different perception of them altogether.
To put him in the right perspective, I asked my newly married colleague, ‘Do you know what’s the first thing invading soldiers normally do on entering a city?’ He didn’t. So I told him: they enter apartments in groups and gang-rape any woman of any age they find there. My colleague’s countenance dropped. He now seemed more eager than any of us to get out of the country as fast as we could. [As I review this message some years later, I just saw the news of a middle-aged Libyan woman, seemingly of good social standing, who burst into a Tripoli hotel to tell the journalists there that she had been raped and beaten by Gadhafi’s militia. She sobbed and said she was held against her will for two days and raped by fifteen men.]
A few days after the great tsunami of 2004, I visited one of the most tragically devastated areas in India. I met two survivors – a handsome man and his pretty wife, both in their twenties. Six months ago they had the fruit of their love union in their hands, a baby girl. They showed me her photo. Just like any other cute smiling baby you see on a parenting magazine’s front cover. On the day of the tsunami, they were dandling their precious gift in their arms, when the wave smashed through their walls and swept the little one away forever from their arms.
Readers do not usually want to hear these tragic tales. But I have mentioned them here in the hope that at least occasionally you may deeply reflect on the daily prosaic happenings…as daylight gives in to dusk and you reach out to press the light switch and the whole room is lit up in cheerful hues; or as you stroll on the street pavement with your wife and kids and do not have to fear any sniper’s bullet…pause a moment to ponder, and be thankful.