Author Topic: Tales of perdition and destruction  (Read 8242 times)

Joe Carillo

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Tales of perdition and destruction
« on: February 06, 2024, 07:38:37 AM »
Our country’s politically disturbing situation today has impelled me to hark back to this cautionary essay that I wrote in the early 2000s bewailing our tendency as a people “to consign ourselves to the patently inferior choices and deceivingly attractive but terribly bad decisions that make life so miserable for many of us.”

In the engineering discipline there’s this thing they call the strength of materials, or the ability of substances to withstand stress and strain. The maximum stress a material can sustain and still be able to return to its original form is called the elastic limit, and engineers designing structures—bridges and buildings, for instance—savagely subject them to forces beyond their ultimate strengths. For safety’s sake, they have models of the structures “tested to destruction.”

The closest popular expression of this that I can think of is the English idiomatic expression “the last straw that broke the camel’s back.” The allusion is, of course, not only to the danger of overloading beasts of burden but also to the perils of blind, unconditional trust in the capacity of things and people to perform beyond their natural, God-given limits. The folly of such behavior is captured chillingly in this haunting English lullaby familiar to most of us:

Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop
When the wind blows the cradle will rock
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall
Down will come baby, cradle, and all.

That humorous English poet-mathematical logician Lewis Carroll (1832-1868) also captured this logic of destruction in the following rhyme about the fallen Humpty Dumpty’s fate in Alice in Wonderland:

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.


Literature and history are, in fact, replete with accounts of tragedies resulting from a failure to recognize the limits to the strength of materials. For instance, in the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by the American playwright-novelist Thornton Wilder ((1897-1975), five apparently morally faultless people on religious pilgrimage plunge to their death when a suspension bridge over a deep canyon snaps. Afterwards, a cleric investigates if there was anything bad or evil the victims had done in their lives for them to deserve such apparently senseless deaths.

Little attention was given to the state of the bridging materials and to their possible deterioration over time, nor to the possibility that the victims might have been, say, excessively overweight, that they may have clustered too close to one another at a weak spot, or that they might have gone into such religious frenzies—as in the Mardi Gras or our very own Ati-Atihan—for the bridge to snap in sympathetic vibration. Any of these circumstances might have been “the last straw that broke the camel’s back,” so to speak.

                                           IMAGE CREDIT: ELITEREADERS.COM

A parallel incident with similar religious overtones happened in Naga City in the Philippines way back in September of 1972. Right after a fluvial procession in honor of the Bicol Region’s religious patroness, Our Lady of Peñafrancia, had passed underneath an old wooden bridge over the Bicol River, the bridge collapsed. Several dozen devotees and onlookers, most of them boys and girls, were crushed to death or drowned.

To my knowledge, no religious investigation was done to connect their tragic fate to possible moral or reprehensible misdeeds in their life, as was done by the cleric who investigated “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” tragedy. However, just a few hours after the Bicol River bridge collapsed, I personally went to the scene and this was what I saw—the wooden rafters and railings were severely rotted, split, or cracked after years of exposure to sun, wind, rain, and termites. To my mind, there was no way the badly decayed wood could have held the weight of those hundreds of people jostling one another in religious frenzy on the bridge or hanging from its rafters. The faith of the devotees was incredibly strong, but the materials of the bridge simply had become so weak for carry their mortal weight.

In shipping as well, even the “battleship quality” steel of the ocean liner RMS Titanic fractured and broke that fateful night on April 14, 1912 when the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic, killing over 1,500 passengers aboard. The ship’s hull, although made of what was touted as the best plain carbon ship-plate material available during the time, was damaged by the iceberg, and the rivet heads in the areas of contact simply popped off because of the tremendous forces created by the collision. This caused several seams in the hull to open up, flooding the ship’s watertight compartments. Because of their ductility, the rivets normally should have deformed first before failing, but according to some strength of materials analysts who examined materials from the wreckage many years later, they must have become so brittle in below-freezing water temperature. Their safety factor was thus breached and they failed.

As in these tales of perdition and destruction, the danger to all of us is that we have been so mercilessly conditioned by our contemporary culture, religion, and media to believe that everything is possible. We hardly put any safety factor in our personal, social, and political affairs. We thrive and even revel in blind faith and wishful thinking. We observe no minimum nor maximum measures, no standards, no limits to anything—be it a dream, a plan, a product, a support system, a mode of conveyance, an advocacy, or a vote or aspiration to an elective post. In sum, we don’t think logically and rationally. We consign ourselves to the patently inferior choices and deceivingly attractive but bad decisions that ultimately make life so miserable for many of us.

Read this essay and listen to its voice recording in The Manila Times:
Tales of perdition and destruction

This essay subsequently appeared as Chapter 151 in my book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

RELATED RECENT TRAGEDY (February 14,2024):
Church balcony in Bulacan PH collapses, 1 dead, 52 injured
(Next: How to form our negative sentences correctly)          February 15, 2024                                                                                              

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« Last Edit: February 15, 2024, 07:07:49 AM by Joe Carillo »