Flood waters rising — Thoughts after Katrina, Irene, and Sandy

Wind and water.   We are such fools to imagine that we humans are on the same level of force as they are.  As much as we direct them and dam them — and damn them to hell when they overwhelm us — wind and water do what they want, go where they want, destroy what they want.  They follow the pull of gravity and the suck of the atmosphere and toss us about like toy tugboats.  Except that we are not nearly as resilient as the little plastic boats I played with in the bathtub as a kid.

It should teach us some humility, but somehow the lesson doesn’t stick.  Once we weather the storm, even if battered and bruised and much the worse for wear, we pick up our hubris, brush ourselves off, and do our best to pretend nothing happened.

Learning from our mistakes doesn’t seem to be part of our character.   We see the Earth shifting under our feet and try to act like everything’s okay.  Makes you empathize with Chicken Little running around yelling that the sky is falling.  Maybe Chicken Little wasn’t so foolish after all.

I’m afraid we have more in common with ants on an anthill than superior beings defining our own fates.   We don’t adapt very well when the world changes, even when it’s our own behavior that’s changing it.  We see tides rising and the winds howling and rivers overflowing; yet, when we’re done fixing everything that got broken, we want to dig our heads back into the sand and act like we don’t have anything do to with the problem or its solution.

I know that’s not completely fair.  We humans are a resilient lot also.  Maybe not as tough those little ships of my childhood bathtub, but tough all the same.  There is a fierce energy in us to live, to survive, to grow, to keep growing.   That shows up too when nature rears its head and puts us in our place.

Disastrous of acts of nature do bring out the very best in many people, maybe even most people.  Communities suddenly become more than collections of isolated individuals and become real communities as we face recovery from a natural catastrophe. It’s an exciting moment when people drop their differences and work together to help each other out.

But I’m also shocked at how quickly we forget, how quickly we return to petty quarrels, fault lines of difference, unpleasant assumptions about each other, antagonism to cooperative effort.  We try to keep the spirit going, but we have to be honest that it fades all too quickly.

On a global level, it’s a far scarier vision.   If nations, religions, ideologies, don’t figure out pretty soon how to live on the same planet together, how to share its resources and accept the infinite range of human variation, it ain’t lookin’ real good for us humans.

Which ought to give us a kick in the butt.  For a race that’s always struggling to survive, we’re too damn complacent.   Yes, we’ve all got our own problems, our own reasons to be pissed off at the next guy or wrapped up in our own miseries and fears, but could we keep at least a little of the sense of urgency to find ways to cooperate with each other?

Nature reminds us of how meagre we are in the face of its ravages. But we are not only a pawn of nature; we are a force of nature as well.  And no matter how we may lie shattered by disaster, we not only soldier on, we strive to become something more tomorrow than we are today.  Perhaps we can figure out how to do this together.  Perhaps we can recognize that we don’t just need to learn how to work together cooperatively in the heat of emergency, but long after the immediate crisis has passed.

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Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning