Edit this post

The On Being Project

A Geophysicist’s View of the ‘Rigidity’ and ‘Ductility’ of Human Communities and the Earth

When the geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon was 36, he had a “major crisis” in his life. As his scientific research consumed his time and energy, he found himself alienated from others in the world. He “was not seeing the people in difficulty and suffering,” he said, and that led him to resign his academic positions and stop conducting his research. He went to Calcutta, India, “to Mother Teresa’s place” and spent six weeks working with people in a home for dying destitutes.
In “Ecce Homo,” Dr. Le Pichon writes of the foundational experience:

“How old is the small boy lying on the pallet? Five, eight, ten? Misery and suffering are ageless. Emaciated, coiled up like a fetus, all his life has taken refuge in his eyes, immense eyes that look at me without any blink. He was picked up in the street two weeks ago. The sister thinks that he will soon die. ‘Try to give him something to eat.’

This is the only task that I can fill in this home for dying destitutes of mother Teresa of Calcutta. With my children, I have learned how to spoon feed a baby. From the motions of the lips, of the tongue, I detect when it is possible to delicately introduce a tiny bit of food in the mouth. The infants are so fragile that the only food they can accept is one that is given with tenderness. The proximity of death has brought back this child to his infancy.
In the position he has taken, lying on his side, it is not easy to get the grains of rice in his mouth. He would like to help in order to please me. But he does not have this strength any more. The grains of rice fall on the napkin that I have spread below his chin. Small windows through the upper part of the walls diffuse a peaceful translucent light that envelops the rows of bodies from which groans are rising. The street noise that comes from the outside strangely appears to come from far away. Yet this peace islet is in the heart of one of the most life teeming quarters of Calcutta. Above the child, against a pillar, a statue of the Virgin Mary is presiding over the exchange between the child and me, exchange that penetrates in the deepest part of my heart.
Who is this child that the tidal wave of human misery has deposited among the dozens of other ‘dying destitutes,’ as announced on the board at the entrance: ‘Home for dying destitutes.’ Why did I have to travel over ten thousand kilometers to meet him so that he would completely reorient my life?
Suffering has suddenly swept my soul: it has washed away everything in me. How so much suffering that I had not even noticed could be present next to me? As I had been standing on the crest of the advancing wave of our scientific and technologic civilization, I did not even glance at the debris left over by its flow. I was looking ahead. And suddenly, among the debris of my civilization, this child becomes for me a person, the most important person in my life.

‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ In the eyes of this child, it is Jesus on his cross, in the mystery of his abandonment, who reveals himself to me. I never felt him to be so close. Jesus alive, taking upon himself the pain of the whole world, revealing to me that I had abandoned him. ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Mary, his mother, is there, also present. I now understand why she is always there, next to the cross. How is it possible without her to live this suffering without revolt? The peace that comes from this child, in the middle of his pain, I know that it comes from the presence of Mary.'”

After encountering that child in Calcutta in 1973, he realized life as he had lived it would be different:

“I could not go back to my lab and continue to live as before. The “Poor” had knocked at my door. I had opened it. He had entered and was now with me forever. Borrowing the words of Isaiah, I had recognized in this child my own flesh and I could not escape any more. I did not know his name and yet he had given me a new name that I had been expecting for years. Within his suffering, my new friend had a mysterious power of presence that had enlightened my own self. In exchange for the small amount of love that I had been manifesting in my own poor way, I had received the gift of the Spirit of God who was dwelling in him. Through this gift I had been confirmed in the depth of my living being, that is of my loving being, who needs presence and who needs at the same time to give himself and to be received fully within a unique relationship.”

Dr. Le Pichon then returned to France and consulted with Father Thomas Philippe. He encouraged him to come live in the L’Arche community, and share his life with suffering people. But the wise priest and friend also urged Dr. Le Pichon to continue his work as a geophysicist. Pursuing these dual passions of science and spiritual community, Xavier Le Pichon continued to ponder the implications of the fragility that marks human life at its beginning, its end, and at places in between.
During the decades Xavier Le Pichon spent working on his scientific theories explaining plate tectonics, he’s come to see the analogies between the “rigidity” and what he calls “ductility” of the Earth and human communities he’s witnessed from India to France:

“As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, the faults facilitate the evolution of a system. A system, which is too perfect, is also too rigid because it does not need to evolve. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature.
A perfectly, smoothly running system, without any default is a close system that can only evolve through a major commotion: the evolution occurs through revolutions. An example from my own geological domain illustrates this very important point: most of the earthquakes occur within the upper fifteen to twenty kilometers of the Earth.

Let us take the example of California. The western portion glides toward the northwest at about four centimeters per year along a major fracture, which is called the San Andreas Fault. Yet during about one hundred years, the two lips of the fault stay in contact and the corresponding four meters of motion are absorbed by elastic deformation over a width of about one hundred kilometers on both sides of the fault.
Then suddenly there is a break: this is the earthquake. The two sides jump back to their equilibrium position with a corresponding quasi-instantaneous relative motion of four meters (100 x 4 cm) of the two lips of the fault. Yet below fifteen to twenty kilometers, instead of these discontinuous, abrupt motions, there is a continuous creep at four centimeters per year without any earthquake. Why? This is because at this depth, the small defaults of the crystals within the rocks have been activated by the increase in temperature and relax the rigidity, allowing a continuous creep to release the plate tectonic forces and thus avoiding the necessity for periodic disasters. Above this depth, on the contrary, the defaults are ‘frozen in’ because of the colder temperatures. The rocks keep their rigidity until they are fractured, thus producing the earthquake. One moves from rigid and brittle rocks, within the upper layer, to ductile rocks below that can deform in a continuous fashion under the action of tectonic forces.
The same thing is true for all systems that need to evolve. Contrarily to what is often assumed, the weak and imperfect parts are often those that allow the evolution to occur without any revolution. This is true for the evolution of life, which is in great part based on the occurrence of coding errors during the duplication of the genetic information.

One can ask whether it is not also true of our societies. We tend to dissociate the individuals who are well adapted to our social life from those that have difficulties to follow the pace that is imposed on them by our life style. Yet a society that separates the producers from the others considered as dead weight, even as marginal or excluded individuals, is a hard society, characterized by conflicts and often by complete rejection of minorities. It is sad and pessimistic. On the contrary a society where all are well integrated has a much more adaptable structure, with a different, easier and more conciliatory mode of life. It is often happier and more optimistic.”

Share Your Reflection