Hurricane Harvey left a path of destruction along the Texas coast last week, that will no doubt be felt for years to come. However, in the midst of the destruction, there were shining beacons of heroism, courage, and compassion. We saw heartwarming stories of strangers swimming into flooded waters to pull victims from cars, neighbors opening up their homes, and thousands opening their wallets to donate or volunteer time and resources.
In the wake of such disasters, what are forces that drive us to unite and foster community resilience? In order to understand what brings us together, we must understand why catastrophic events seemingly promote the most unity. What prevents us from maintaining this level of community and selflessness?
The Daily Distracters
On a normal basis, the average American is distracted by the buzz of daily life. Go to work, take care of the kids, try to squeeze in a workout, and argue with people on Facebook about something dumb. You know the routine! We become wrapped up in our own lives, striving for success, or maybe just trying to make ends meet.
Current society is targeted at promoting individual success. The CEO of the company, the valedictorian, or the top paid athletes; our capitalist society is driven by unequal distribution of wealth and success. Does this mean that we have to translate these principles into our private lives though? We have the ability to choose to acknowledge and assist others in a collaborative way everyday. Whether it is holding the door open for a struggling mom, or advocating for equal rights of often-unprotected classes of people, we can make a difference in the lives of others.
Bringing it Back to the Basics
If you truly want to look at the issue from an anthropological or sociologic level, humans are designed to live in communities. This is the reason that our language and communication abilities have advanced over thousands of years. Some would likely argue that the current generation has failed at the communication piece because less communication is occurring face to face. Nonetheless, communication is happening; the method has simply changed.
Until the more recent age of “independence” and self-reliance, humans have always worked in groups to ensure their survival. Communities centered around shared food gathering, hunting, child rearing and other practices. To the modern American, these sound like foreign concepts—that is, until disaster strikes. When this occurs, all the modern day rules get thrown out the window and we return to our primitive community instincts. Neighbors share their supplies, and families hand their children off to strangers in order to protect them from more dangerous threats, such as rapidly rising water. Strangers work in groups to coordinate rescue efforts. No one concerned about pride or leadership, but rather completion of the mission at hand.
Guilt and Helplessness
Whether it is a sort of survivor’s guilt and relief for not being a victim of such a catastrophic disaster, or true empathy, or a combination of both, these feelings often prompt action. Individuals and groups from around the country unify and begin donation drives, send volunteers, and offer their condolences from afar. This is interesting because they do not belong to the “community” directly affected, and may not even know anyone personally impacted. However, they are part of the larger “American community” that feels the pain every time it’s members experience suffering.
These natural disasters and events are instant reminders of the frailty of human life and the power nature has to destroy everything humans feel invincible in working to build. They are humbling reminders that material possessions are not what is most important in life. We each feel the helplessness, the appreciation for what we have, and the need to contribute. Many willingly donate their earnings and give up their material possessions, both in an effort to help others, and to acknowledge that they should not place as much emphasis on these items in their daily lives.
Genuine Compassion and Empathy
I do believe that at a core level humans truly do care for each other and are capable of extraordinary compassion and empathy. Those of us with any level of emotional intelligence can place ourselves in others shoes. We can imagine the sadness experienced by those witnessing complete destruction of everything they have worked to build and the fear in being uncertain of the safety of family and friends. Disasters trigger the deepest and most primitive emotional centers of our brains, the areas that were present long before we had our now highly developed critical thinking abilities.
During catastrophic events, humans are stripped of every other label they hold other than a being capable of suffering. We see unity across racial, socioeconomic, political, age, gender, ability, and other groups that may typically divide us as Americans. Although there is a sense of community and country pride in the unity and assistance that manifests following disaster, it is disappointing to see that these efforts fade. Our brains feel the most driven to help when those primitive emotional centers are activated, and when we see communities being restored, there is a natural sense of comfort that sets in.
We have the luxury of arguing about tax reform, healthcare bills, or immigration if we know that we will survive to see those efforts take effect. In disasters, our brain pushes these arguments to the back of our minds because ensuring survival takes precedent. I only hope that we can acknowledge that allowing everyone a seat at the table provides for better community resilience. The ability of a community to bounce back after disaster and make sure they have plans in place for the next disaster is a product of community unity, and making sure that all voices are heard.
If you would like to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey, there are a number of charities and organizations you can donate to. For one of the most comprehensive lists that I have seen take a look at this Texas Monthly article.