A few weeks ago I learned about a place called Stora Karlso, a small Swedish island. Stora Karlso became a nature reserve in the late 1800’s when the humans vacated after thousands of years. By then, the seabird population of common murres had shrunk to about 100. Today it is 60,000 birds – the largest of the Baltic Sea – a favourite spot for tourists, who carefully visit each year to take pictures at a distance, of the birds and the ocean vista. The space is designed so that people can visit without leaving their mark.
Except this past year when, because of the pandemic, the tourists didn’t come at all. The researchers who study the birds at Stora Karlos told a New York Times writer that they considered this a rare opportunity to find out what would happen when humans were completely absent from the ecosystem. And so over the months, they watched.
They expected the murres, nervous birds by nature, to thrive. But that is not what happened.
Instead, Stora Karlso became an unexpected lesson in unintended consequences.
This week, in our gospel, we hear of another healing by Jesus—an intended consequence. His reputation is growing, and his healing skills are a big part of that. When you bring people back from the dead, or cure lepers, or heal those with a mental illness, especially in a time where illness is understood as being about demons and spirits, you are going to make a name for yourself. These acts are impressive. Even as we may understand them in our scientific age, Jesus was a skilled healer.
And certainly during this time, especially, we owe a special debt to those doctors and front line health care workers who are saving lives during the pandemic. How we pay back that debt is also a story of unintended consequences.
Now, I want to pause here and talk about how we define “healing” because I think, as followers of the gospel, that is important. If we keep the definition narrow, we think of hospitals, and cures, and the kind of incredible feats that Jesus was accomplishing. But the gospel never thrives on narrow definitions. Indeed, we are taught over and over again by Jesus that healing comes from our choices, our actions, in small and large ways. We are all called to be healers. Some of that is obvious: we call a lonely friend, and give them joy – we have brought healing. We donate to a social justice cause; we have enabled healing. We smile at a stranger and change the mood in the air; we have inspired healing. Healing happens in all sorts of intended, and unintended ways; those acts of kindness that the gospel prescribes for us, raise people from the dead and cure them of their sorrows in many ways.
But just as we heal; we can do harm. And let’s be honest: some of that we see clearly. When we are rude, or hateful to a person’s face, we can see the harm we have caused, whether we choose to do something about it or not. When the harm is brought about by neglect, or a failure to act, we are often aware that someone is feeling hurt. Sometimes though, we give in to our own lesser feelings, and don’t see the harm at all. It never reveals itself to us.
I think social media is probably the best example of this. People fire off tweets, or leave comments, or hit send on emails, and never have to see the person who reads that tweet, or comment or email, and is harmed by it. I imagine that is why people do it: they never have to see the intended, or the unintended consequences of their actions. They just get to make themselves feel better. We don’t need Jesus, to tell us that if we are feeling good about being what seems for us to be momentarily unkind, that it is harming not healing – for both parties really. And because we don’t know how that arrow we have fired will land – what injury it will cause – we can carry on, willfully blind. And yet we know, that if we send a missive that contains love or kindness, odds are it lands somewhere that heals. It is hard to do harm with love and acceptance and forgiveness.
But let’s go back to Stora Karlso, and what those researchers found. As it happened, without the humans around, another problem turned up: eagles. The eagles came in flocks, and startled the murres, who flew off the cliff, and abandoned their nests. Their eggs became easy prey; and sometimes, they even kicked the eggs off the ledge themselves to get away from the eagles. The eagles rarely prey on the murres themselves, but they make them nervous, and emboldened by the lack of humans, there were a lot of eagels. In the end, in 2020, 26 per cent fewer murre eggs hatched than in a usual year. As it turned out, the humans were good for the murres. Their absence had an unintended consequence.
Now, this story struck me, because we are living right now in a world of consequences. And we can so clearly see right now how our actions affect others; how the arrows of our decision land. When people don’t wear masks, when they choose to travel, when they take unnecessary risks, we see what happens to the covid-19 numbers, and how they rise. A person’s decision not to wear a mask may not be malicious in intent, but it has the unintended consequence of increasing cases, which increases the burden on health care workers, which increases their risk, which increases patients in the ICU, which makes it hard to treat people quickly who don’t have Covid-19, which leads to more deaths. Wearing a mask on the other hand heals: it brings numbers down, it makes space in hospitals, it saves lives.
The stories in the gospel are full of intended and unintended consequences. The Samaritan stranger stops by the road, saves a man, and that story inspires others, not only to stop for those in need, but to question our view of those who will help us. Jesus heals a man with leprosy, but the message that spreads is one of compassion and caring for those whom society has abandoned. Jesus stops by the sea and chats with some fisherman, and those people become his friends for the rest of his life. And yet how different it might have gone: a stranger walks by and pretends not to see; a man with leprosy dies without compassion; a bunch of fishermen just go on fishing. Our choices, good and bad, quick or thoughtful, always have consequences. Our arrows – whether fired in anger or to reach out with compassion – always land. That is the power each one us have: to harm or to heal. The story of Stora Karlso is that we cannot always be certain of what consequences we may have, but if we act with respect and consideration for those in our environment, we may find we have been a positive influence in our ecosystem in a way we didn’t expect. The story of this past year shows us that single, caring actions by individuals can have large impacts. What better for the people who want to follow the gospel to know: love, kindness, forgiveness – the ability to heal is ours to choose. And we can be certain that it will have consequences.