A few years ago, I watched a documentary on television about the ancient city of Pompeii and the disastrous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. I do love history in general, as well as learning about the power of nature and historical natural disasters, so this was particularly fascinating to me. The documentary has stuck with me, more than any other I’ve watched, and it has been on my mind again lately.
For those of you who are not familiar with Pompeii, it was an ancient Roman city near the current city of Naples, Italy. It was a vibrant area, well-populated for the time, and frequented by vacationers. Despite its proximity to Mount Vesuvius which had erupted many times before, about 20,000 people lived there around this time. Sixteen years prior, a massive earthquake caused the volcano to send warnings out to the local people and still, the population thrived. When the volcano had its gigantic and most famous explosion in 79 A.D., people had stayed put in the city they loved, despite the warnings. As the eruption began, many Pompeians fled, nevertheless 2000 others lingered, loyal to their city.
The entire region was carpeted in volcanic ash. Those that survived the eruption itself were affected by the aftermath of the explosion; the fine ash and volcanic gases that suffocated or intoxicated them. Watching the documentary, I was captivated by images of people, belongings and buildings that were completely preserved in the hot volcanic ash. Because of the incredible preservational power of those volcanic products, historians have benefitted from amazing amounts of historical artifacts from the time. Local people display some as art in their homes. Casts of human bodies, mummified, show the horror of those who did not flee.
For me, the most enthralling part of the story was about those who stayed behind. Why would people risk their lives to remain, even while watching volcanic ash and gases spewing into the air before them? Why would families, young lovers, farmers and educated citizens alike remain in place?
According to geologists, Vesuvius is due for another major and catastrophic eruption any time. The last eruption was in 1944. Today, nearly 3 million people live within 20 miles of the volcano, despite the clear risk and actual historical evidence of the potential destruction they could experience again. In the documentary, they spoke to present day citizens who said that their love for their region and the people that surrounded them was enough to keep them there, despite the inherent risks.
The larger question that arose for me relates to human nature in general. Why do we put ourselves in positions that are against our better judgment? Ok, I admit that sometimes humans are just plain stupid, ignorant and naïve. And, there are many motivations for risk taking, too numerous and personal to name, but I would argue that love is the greatest and most powerful of these.
Love, as complicated and illogical as it can be, causes us to put ourselves in situations where we risk heartbreak, life break, physical and emotional danger. We put aside our own best interests, health, well-being, routines, emotional needs and goals in order to pursue the object of our heart’s desire. What causes us to become dumb in the face of passion? Hormones? Genes? Indescribable spiritual or soul connection? Personal experience? The utopia of Hollywood?
I find this fascinating, both in my own life and as I watch others. I believe most of us consider the risks associated with the pursuit of true and formidable romantic love to be worthwhile. We sometimes end up heartbroken and regretful, but still we experience increbible moments and connections, and learn and grow in the process. And, a few people truly find the great love of their heart and soul, and know it was worth the risks they took to chase it. I’d like to think that some of those 2000 people who stayed in Pompeii stayed because it was there that their lovers and families lived, and their hearts simply cried out to them that they could not abandon their homes. They may not have lived to enjoy the future, but the stunning objects of their devotion remain forever. Some might call this stupidity, but we might also regard it as truly beautiful.
For exploration at another time, I also think that while times of catastrophe and strife sometimes bring out the worst in people, there are many examples of people either being held together by great love, or showing one another incredible love and care in the face of calamity. This may be true in the way we care for one another in times of local and daily stress, but also in facing major disaster. To be continued….
The image below shows lovers embracing as they awaited their doom – an immortal embrace.