The Smallest Thing

First published in serialized form in Pearson’s Magazine (the UK) and Cosmopolitan (the US) in 1897, H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds has been much on my mind the last few days. The story has become a part of our culture, its narrative running in one way or another through novels, movies, and television shows for more than a hundred years. To sum up the plot: The earth is invaded by aliens from Mars. With deadly force and advanced technology they bring humanity to its knees in a few days time. All seems lost. But suddenly, almost in a single day, all of the Martians die. Humanity is saved, the earth will ultimately return to normal, and people will live with a deeper sense of humility, generosity, and grace (insert Jewish joke about the holidays being summed up as ‘they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat’ here).

What killed the Martians? What is the deus ex machina that comes to the aid of earth’s people? Here is Wells’ description of the moment when the novel’s unnamed narrator realizes the Martians are all gone: “A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there with it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians – dead! – slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, had put upon the earth.”

It was something invisible to the human eye that preserved human life and culture. It was a virus, some kind of bacteria, some sub-molecular life-form that destroyed the Martians in all of their hubris, all of their strength and might and glory. They were invincible, unstoppable, until they met the smallest thing imaginable. And against that they could not stand.

It is astonishing to think of what was just a few days ago, and what is now. The world itself, all of our great cities, our powerful (and interconnected economies), our vaunted technology, our knowledge and capital – all of it, at least for a time, has been brought to a virtual standstill. By the smallest thing imaginable.

What lessons are there to learn? Humility might be one. Kindness. Generosity. Caring. Patience. Gratitude. It is an old list, but oft neglected and easily forgotten. Perhaps you have some of your own values and ideals to add. It is a list worth keeping in our minds these days, as we navigate the present moment and its challenges, and as we prepare for what our lives and our world will be like when this smallest thing recedes from view. It will not happen for us like it did for the people in Wells’ tale of Martian invasion. For them it was all over in an instant. The Martians were gone overnight. For us it will be a long road of rebuilding, of caring for and supporting one another, a process that will continue to unfold for many months to come. May we do the work fully committed to the good of all, heart, mind, and soul.

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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