/kəˈlamɪti/. Great adversity or misfortune. A Disaster. Affliction.
Lately I’ve felt compelled to consider calamities. With all the examples in the news, from the Australian conflagration to the potential for catastrophic destruction in Iran, you’d think my curiosity would be sparked by something found while seeking salvation for my spirit rather than a salve for my terrifyingly chapped lips.
But true to form, it was the sight of a selection of calamine lotions that sent me to the dictionary to see if the similar sounding words calamine and calamity were related, despite appearing about as opposite each other as a practically mythical sounding description of disaster and a drugstore aisle item can be.
The answer, it turns out, is a resounding "maybe, maybe not." The word calamity, which the Collins dictionary defines as "a disaster or misfortune, esp one causing extreme havoc, distress, or misery," comes to us, with the same meaning the whole way, through the 14th century old French calamite, from the Latin calamitas.
But at that point the etymological eight ball points to "history unclear." Word lore has it that the Latin came somehow from calamus, a reed or cane (as in sugarcane), possibly in reference to damage done to those important crops. This agricultural conjecture perhaps influenced Sir Francis Bacon’s whimsical account in his 1670 Sylva Sylvarum, or a Natural History that
The word Calamitas was first derived from Calamus, when the Corn could not get out of the stalk
To stack conjecture upon conjecture, the calamine in calamine lotion is another name for zinc carbonate—the main ingredient in the soothing concoction—which might have come from the reed-like appearance of the mineral in its stalactite form (that’s the form that comes down from above—‘c’ is for ceiling, as opposed to stalagmites that come up from below—‘g’ is for ground; thanks Mr. Kelley, 8th grade teacher extraordinaire).
Regardless of its origins, and despite its presence in the popular press to describe events ranging from lopsided football scores to the prospect of a world ravaged by the effects of global warming, calamity retains, for me, hints of the mythical.
In fact, the first recorded use of the word is found in William Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, in a line which he renders as
[Aeneas] was restored…from anguisshe and calamyte in to right grete prosperite
And it’s hard to escape, consciously or not, the influence of the many biblical references to calamities, such as God’s warning in Proverbs 1:26 to those who would ignore him that in turn "I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh."
But calamities clamor for our attention in all kinds of ways. Though I need only consider my biography to know that pleasures can be calamitous, the great theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine described the interdependent nature of the two most eloquently, writing in the Confessions that:
…my pains are banished by pleasure. For hunger and thirst are actual pain. They consume and destroy like fever does, unless the medicine of food is at hand to relieve us. And since this medicine at hand comes from the comfort we receive in thy gifts (by means of which land and water and air serve our infirmity), even our calamity is called pleasure.
Shakespeare went further, in a way, invoking the paired calamities of both life and death when he has Hamlet famously muse on whether to be or not to be, or to sleep or to wake:
To sleep, perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
In other words, we should seek to extend our life as long as possible, no matter how difficult, because the dreams we experience in death might be even worse than the pains of waking life. What an optimist!
But there just might be something to this sadly natural-seeming idea of inevitable calamity; it might also mean there is inevitably calm, calamity’s true opposite.
Poet and Zen Buddhist Jane Hirshfield captures this perfectly in her exquisite tiny poem "All the Difficult Hours and Minutes," where she writes:
All the difficult hours and minutes
are like salted plums in a jar.
Wrinkled, turn steeply into themselves,
they mutter something the color of sharkfins to the glass.
Just so, calamity turns toward calmness.
First the jar holds the umeboshi, then the rice does.