The other day, I got a message from a dear friend: “You’re one of the more pragmatic people I know; Am I an asshole for not understanding why everyone is devastated by the Notre Dame fire?”
Though I don’t think he’s an asshole – you can’t help how you feel about any particular thing – instead of comforting him, I tried to explain why it’s devastating to other people in a way he might relate to. So I told him to imagine the Beatles discography only existed in physical form, and imagine it was wiped out by a fire, never to be enjoyed again except as some imperfect modern recreation. It was as though if I made him understand everyone’s sadness, I would be able to justify why I myself had spent the past 6 hours trying not to cry while glued to live streams of Notre Dame burning down.
Since then, the fire has been put out and wealthy donors have already pledged more than $600 million to rebuild the cathedral. This is both heartwarming and bewildering, as people with that kind of money to give away merely send thoughts and prayers while victims of modern-day disasters sit without homes or cities or clean water. So the question of why we care so much about this particular structure has been on my mind. Why is Notre Dame more valuable than real human lives? Why are we so devastated about this particular structure?
The answer probably has a lot to do with time and perception. In short, people put more value on things that are old, because with age these things become irreplaceable. For instance, priceless artworks aside, the beams of the roof of Notre Dame were built from massive 12th century trees that simply don’t grow that big anymore. No amount of money in the world is going to make trees grow bigger. So the roof of the cathedral can’t be rebuilt the way it was before. Even more significant than that, Notre Dame housed statues, paintings, and other works by artists that have been dead for centuries. It held what is believed to be Jesus’s Crown of Thorns, which were thankfully saved. All of these things, if destroyed, could never be replaced or recreated.
While men are not permanent by design, their work has the potential to outlive them. All an artist can ever hope for is for their art to be appreciated long after they’re gone, for the same reason most people want to pass down their family name. And at Notre Dame, we did. Whether or not you personally care about art, religion, or architecture, it’s impossible to see a massive spectacular symbol of human achievement like the Notre Dame and not feel awed by its elaborate buttresses and the light of the sun shining through stained glass. It’s a stunning reminder that when were not starting wars and killing each other, humans are capable of creating truly beautiful things.
Yet at the heart of the collective sadness is probably something even more primal. Even more poignant than the loss of priceless works is the loss of something we expected to be there forever. Whether logical or not, people ascribe permanence to things that are old. Notre Dame has been there for 850 years, long before us, so we assume it’ll always be there. There’s a special kind of shock and despair associated with letting go of something that you expected to outlive you.
This is perhaps the same thinking that holds people back from doing things, like travel, when they’re otherwise physically and financially capable. “Paris will always be there, so I can wait to go.” When something has been around forever, you take it for granted. Surely, there are French people living in Paris that had never bothered to step foot in the cathedral, because it’s always been there. And perhaps now they regret that.
The tragic fire at Notre Dame reminds us that nothing is forever. That even the works of timeless men is not impervious to obliteration; even the things we thought would last forever aren’t always permanent. In a matter of hours, hundreds of years of history and human creation can be reduced to ashes, and all we can do is watch helplessly. That is what’s truly devastating.