Thursday, May 5, 2016

Final thoughts on Disaster

Took advantage of my day off yesterday to finish the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly.  A number of essays towards the end inspired this post.

The first was excerpted from William James' "On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake", concerning the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  James was in Palo Alto at the time, studying at Stanford University, where the earthquake was felt, albeit at a much lesser degree as Stanford is about 35 miles from San Francisco.  James' essay recounts how his experiences surrounding this disaster confirmed his belief that man can do extraordinary things when faced with difficult circumstances.  His observations centered around the cooperation that was exhibited by the survivors, how so many everyday people stepped up to assist where assistance was needed. 

Similarly, an excerpt from Rebecca Solnit's "A Paradise Built in Hell", expounds on James' beliefs, as Solnit recounts the response by those effected by numerous disasters.  Her conversations with the survivors of all types of natural disasters, led her to posit that the best of humanity is often displayed at the worst of times.  In fact, she goes further in her thinking that such disasters break us out of the modern lifestyle that corrals us into limited contact with our fellow man; the use of computers and cell phones rather than face to face conversations.  And, when forced to renew our social contacts, man reacts admirably, for the most part.  In essence, she uses the best of our reactions to disaster to contradict the prevalent belief that men are fragile, in need of professional help to navigate the perils of the world. 

But it is one thing to rejoice in the altruistic and honorable behavior of the survivors of disasters, and another thing when considering the victims of those same tragedies.  In Svetlana Alexievich's "Voices From Chernobyl", the story of Lyudmilla Ignayenko, and her husband, who was one of the firemen from the first fire brigade to arrive at the crippled power plant, is recounted.  What was striking to me was the juxtaposition of the day before the reactor's meltdown and everyday afterwards, until the death of Luydmilla's husband from radiation poison.  As it is when any story is retold, as it would be if we were to read about the day before activities of any of the 3000 people who died on 9/11, those stories include birthday parties, news of recent engagements or pregnancies, vacation plans, and a myriad of everyday events, going to school or work or church.  And that is the rub.  One day, life is normal.  The next day, everything has changed, forever. 

The reality however, is that everyday is the last day of normal life for thousands of people in our country.  Some die from a fatal disease that has sucked the life from them for a while, some from complications to a medical procedure that may have extended their life, but did not.  Some are killed instantly in accidents, vehicular or gun related.  These people and their families did not have the warning of a fatal disease diagnosis, just one day there, the next day gone. 

What is strange is that the odds are, we won't die tomorrow.  So we pretend we are temporarily immortal, and spend too much of the time of our life engaged in petty arguments.  We fight over possessions, land, minerals, knowing we can't take them with us, but fighting all the same.  We ignore the knowledge that while we may not die tomorrow, there will be a two day span sometime in the future where life will be normal one day, over the next. 

Perhaps ignoring that inevitability is good for the mind, keeps one from falling into an existential morass.  Perhaps.  But maybe acknowledging our immortality is what inspires the actions of those who survive calamities.  They experience death through others, are grateful to have not been a victim, and find their eyes are reopened to the wonder of being alive.

Do we cry when a loved one dies for them only, for the fact that we will never see them in this life again, or also because we know that day will one day arrive for us too, and we worry that we might not experience all that we want before that day comes.  Or do as much good as we could.

I would like to think that James and Solnit are correct in their belief that disaster brings out the best in us, because it assumes that the best is already there, waiting to show itself.  Now, if we could only demonstrate those higher qualities without the need for catastrophe. 

No comments:

Post a Comment