Tuesday, January 4, 2011


First appeared in Outwords, October 2010.

I was browsing through the January, 2010 issue of the New Yorker the other day to see what I'd forgotten about. Our modern news media cycles through stories so quickly, that even truly major events are sucked down the memory-hole within a week or two, so occaisonally I read “out-dated” news, just to combat the collective amnesia a little. I noted the artwork on the cover (a couple of skeletons standing in the doorway of a building, drawn in a cartoony style that reminded me of Day of the Dead), but it didn't register until I opened the magazine: oh yeah, Haiti. What, with the oil in the gulf and the floods in Pakistan and Lindsey Lohan going to jail and all, I'd forgotten about Haiti. I wonder how they're doing?

It's hardly an original thought, but it occurrs to me that one positive side-effect of natural disasters and other forms of social and physical upheaval and hardship is that they bring people together in a way that the normal course of daily affairs doesn't seem to. When the excrement really hits the oscillator, so to speak, we are forced to rely on one another, to turn to one another for aid. We are compelled by circumstances into the existential understanding that we must all work together to survive; no one is an island.

Musician Greg Brown once said, “This whole idea of intentional community is baloney...You have to need each other.” In the aftermath of earthquakes and hurricanes, amidst the wreckage of tornadoes and forest fires, we are brought to need each other. It's a radical way to get community, perhaps, but in the current age of unadulterated individualism would anything less radical really be effective? Perhaps without these kinds of massive human tragedy we would become totally calloused, egoistic individuals. Our contemporary culture, sadly, seems to bear out this conclusion.

I remember hearing a piece on KUFM about the little community of Alberton. The story focused on the tight-knit character of the town, created at least in part, it seems, by the general economic hardship faced in the area. One resident was quoted as saying something to the effect of, “People talk about recession, we've been having a recession here for the last twenty-five years.” But when a new family arrives in town there's sure to be home-made baked goods delivered by at least one neighbor, and the residents of Alberton, unlike those of our own fair hamlet, are garaunteed to know their neighbor's names and probably a lot more besides. In Alberton they have community, which so many of us in the city claim to desire, but they also have hardship, which none desire. But what if hardship is necessary to build and maintain community?

It's almost a sad thought, isn't it, that we need difficulty and struggle, hardship and pain to bring us together; that during prolonged periods of peace and prosperity we all too often sink into egotistical selfishness? But it seems to be the case, so far as I can tell, that strong community bonds are best forged in the fires of crisis and general hardship.

It being the case that humans, like small children, may require a stern hand to compel them to do what is in their own best interest, namely help one another, we might actually be thankful that natural disasters continue to occur. Without them, it seems, we might well devolve into a society of totally narcissistic, self-centered consumers. Without some chaos and economic hardship we might get lost in the myth of the self-sufficient individual, forgetting that we are social creatures by our very nature, and that no one can survive unaided, at least not for long.

Skeptics have often pointed to “natural evils” like the Haitian earthquake to make the claim that an omni-Benevolent diety cannot possibly exist. While I wouldn't claim that natural disasters prove the existance of some diety or other, it would appear that what have been labeled “evils” are, perhaps, not entirely evil in their outcomes. Perhaps they are necessary; perhaps, dare I say it, even beneficial

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