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‘Until there’s a disaster’

11/10/2011

 

By John Connell

Maybe forget civilization, culture and definitely religion. With one good natural disaster, all that is revealed for what it is—a reassuring ruse. Maybe we're part of something much bigger than western civilization or eastern civilization or Buddha or Zen or ancient history or any history at all. I'm just saying this: Let's say.

Instead, maybe we're all particles or lens or filters or I don't know what. But increasingly people everywhere are starting to say that at the very least we're all connected. But then if we're all connected, how come our primary experience in this life is being alone? Huh? Maybe we're all connected but mostly in denial about it. Our bodies are definitely not connected. We spend a good deal of time looking at each other and taking account of the differences.

Let's say we're like receivers or filters all existing in a boundless sea of consciousness (whatever THAT is) or some kind of energy. We could call it a flux. And we're all either tuned in or not just like a radio can be tuned into a station or not but it's still surrounded by the radio waves. I think people who are in denial about being connected simply keep themselves out of tune with the flux.

Like, that homeless guy's not connected to me. That Muslim guy's not connected to me. I'm not connected to that gambler, that drag queen, that hedge fund trader, that...fill in the blank.

Until there's a disaster.

Now saying that we're all suddenly connected when there's a flood is a little too simple. First of all, there's no fairness in a flood. Not everyone gets the same dose. Some lose their stuff, some lose their animals, some lose their lives. And some get insurance while others get nothing. If you never listened to your father telling you that "life isn't fair," there's nothing like a flood to bring home the lesson.

But everyone gets compassion, right? Our flood brought out the very best in everyone: the whole community. People left their own broken homes to go help people whose homes were even more broken. Or gone altogether. And people opened their homes and savings to those in need. Kids grew up and learned they were a needed part of the scene. Generally people cared about all sorts of things and situations that normally don't touch their lives. There's a lot of community talk.

I called a friend in New Jersey though, and it's not the same everywhere.

"How'd you do in the flood down there?" I asked.

"It's crazy, there's silt and mud everywhere. Lots of trees came down and no one has power. The internet's down and we only have cell phones."

So then I tell my version. I tell him about washed out bridges and roads; the caskets floating wildly down a ruptured river and the toxic mud filling up the elementary schools. But I also tell him how amazing everyone is and how everybody is helping each other. I say how the power of community is incredible, right?

"Even before the sun came out there were fund raisers and relief parties. I gotta say, there's nothing like a disaster to make ya realize how lucky we are to have each other. We have three people camping in our living room and another group just showed up with food for everyone."

There was a pause on the other end of the phone and then my friend said in a disbelieving tone, "Well, maybe that's how it goes up there but not down here. Down here we sit on the front porch with a gun, waiting for the looters." Oh.

Like I said, some people are maybe in denial about being tuned in to the flux. I got a lot of phone calls the first day after the flood. How ya doing? Saw it in the papers. That sort of thing. A few of my out-of-state customers also called to inquire. A buddy of mine runs a big woodworking shop that specializes in conference tables for the Fortune 500 set. He's been at it for three decades. Says he's never had a visit from his customers until the flood. Now they're giving tours about once a week.

"That's pretty cool!" I said. "So they're coming all the way up from the city just to see how you're doing and show support. That's so great."

"Huh?  No, they're coming up to see if they should pull their orders. They're worried that we might not make their schedule."

I thought about that three days later when a customer of mine called from out of state. He had called right after the flood to get the inside poop about the storm but now he was calling about his job. He was wondering why I hadn't been on the conference call yesterday.

"Yeah, sorry about that," I said, recalling that I had spent the day working on re-establishing water to my house and family.

"We still don't have any water or power. You know what I mean?"

"Oh. Yeah, that's a bummer. But we're having another conference call at the end of the week. You can make that one, right? It's not for three days."

The guy had no clue. He was definitely not tuned into the same flux I was into. It seems just a little time or distance and the power of a natural disaster wanes dramatically.

It's true. When was the last time you thought about the people recently hit by the tsunami in Japan or the one that wiped out Indonesia in 2004? Krakatau? And closer to home, how about the last time you considered the Haitian plight or even what's become of New Orleans? This isn't a guilt trip. I'm just saying that we forget a lot of huge disasters pretty quickly—unless we're in 'em.

The media markets these disasters and so they need to rotate their inventory. It's just a simple business thing, you understand. But every once in a while, there's a calamity with longer shelf life. For instance, the 9/11 Twin Towers bombing has real staying power. Manmade disasters like Pearl Harbor, The Holocaust or even Vietnam seem to lend themselves to "We Shall Never Forget" treatments. I think maybe that's because we can paint them as good guys against bad; very black and white. Natural disasters are harder that way. I mean who wants to say Nature is the bad guy? That's very out of fashion in case you haven't noticed.

This is where things like civilization, religion and culture start to look pallid. Because huge natural disasters reduce us to what we really don't want to be—just another species in the web of life. This might not be so bothersome if it weren't for the fact that more than 99 percent of all the species that have ever existed are now extinct.1 Not great odds. It's so disorienting to think about all the amazing stuff humans have accomplished over the years being wiped out that people just become desperate for an explanation. Enter religion or science—pick your flavor.

And so I'm just saying maybe we're not all separate species but simply different expressions of the same species. Like a liver, kidney, heart and stomach are all different things but they're not separate things because they're all parts of the body. This could explain the inconsistent way we're all connected, the way people like to say right after a disaster. This could explain why we seem to forget about natural disasters that don't directly affect us. Using the body metaphor, if a kidney is facing huge adversity the rest of the body might not really bring that into focus. Sure, there's a ripple throughout the system, but it doesn't bring things to a halt.

So I'm suggesting maybe it's not just with people but with everything. Maybe we're also connected to the horses and the worms and the birds and the mushrooms. (Now you're thinking maybe I'm getting a little too connected to the mushrooms.)  Isn't that the web of life we hear about all the time? Maybe every species is simply a different expression or part of the whole deal. That could explain all sorts of paranormal behavior, clairvoyance, channeling, horse whispering, bird migrations, parasites...really everything. Even the way we behave during natural catastrophes.

Animals instinctively try to avoid perishing in a natural disaster, but they don't get too disoriented about those who can't (unless it's their offspring). They seem to accept the innate order of things and move back into their inborn rhythms and natural cycles. Of course, they don't have a media culture, science or religion to help them reflect on the "meaning" of it all. And that's where we're peculiar.

We do reflect on the meaning of it all and doing so we employ empathy, sympathy and compassion. The ache felt when we see a wrecked schoolhouse or a buried farm is as real as the sun and the mountain it’s setting behind. Our instincts are split. The palpable pain of local disaster drives us to reach out. But the distant plight of others is either unknown or quickly forgotten.

Maybe we only invented stories so one part of us can remind the other parts that we're here.

[1] Over 99% of documented species are now extinct,[2] but extinction occurs at an uneven rate. Fichter, George S. (1995). Endangered Animals. USA: Golden Books Publishing Company. pp. 5.

John Connell lives in Warren.

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