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The volcanic ash that has spread across Europe and caused millions of travelers a gigantic headache appears to have a “silver lining” after all: remarkable, pristine blue skies, brighter than any other in recent memory. The remarkable sight occurred in part because of the cancelled flights, which prevented busy airspace from being clogged with jet exhaust fumes. The unique blue skies are a reminder what the world used to look like before busy skies and busy roads.

Even travelers stranded at airports en route to their homes in various parts of Europe were prompted to wax nostalgic about a time when travelers had to spend months, or even years, traveling to far-away destinations. Overall, the surreal quietness of no rumbling planes in the sky reminded some passengers that the world used to be a calmer, less hurried, and less polluted place.

In reflecting on this natural disaster, a recent article in The Economist reminded me that no matter how technologically advanced our society becomes, we still can’t overcome the might of nature. Maybe that’s a good thing, so that we remember to slow down and enjoy the time we have with our family and friends.

But the week of absences also offers a less obvious lesson. One of the things that went missing in the shadow of that volcanic dust was a sense of human power. And as with the quiet skies, this absence found a welcome in many hearts. The idea that humans, for all their technological might, could be put in their place by this volcano—this obscure, unpronounceable, C-list volcano—was strangely satisfying, even thrilling.

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