Tragedy and human responses

Occasionally I have dreams about a giant wall of water surging toward me. There’s a special kind of terror, so profound it almost feels like delight, that I feel in those dreams, or when watching a scene in a movie where a giant wave dwarfs buildings or ships. I don’t know if it’s just me or if it’s a common psychological symbol, but my subconscious has used it on more than one occasion to express that mingling of fear and awe, and complete helplessness in the face of a blind, impersonal force. In the dreams, I am out of my mind with fear, but at the same time it’s so awesomely beautiful that I can’t look away.

Watching footage of the water sweeping through the Japanese city of Sendai felt nothing like that. There was no beauty, only destruction on a stupefyingly large scale. I imagine something like that hitting Atlanta, which according to a quick Wikipedia search has about half as many people within the city limits. I imagine watching as a surge of water, carrying with it cars, trees, and remains of homes, engulfs streets and buildings I know intimately. I imagine the utter helplessness of humans and animals caught in the wave’s path. It is a staggering thought.

As humans we seem to have three basic, instinctive responses to this kind of disaster. One is to help, in any way we can. For those of us on the other side of the globe, all we can really do is send money, and many people are doing just that. Whether we can spare $10 or $500, we send money, because we want to do something. People of various religious and spiritual persuasions also pray, or chant, or send positive vibes. It’s at times like these I most miss religion, because there is a tremendous emotional burden, a powerful drive to lighten the disaster in any way I can, and praying used to relieve that burden and let me feel like I was helping.

The second response is to distance ourselves in any way we can. “I’m glad I live in the Midwest” is the most benign way of distancing ourselves — listing practical, physical reasons why this will never happen to me (and ignoring the particular disasters that I are vulnerable to). On the other end of the scale is victim-blaming and hostility. Don’t bother to look it up, it will just make you angry, but some charming folks on facebook (and elsewhere, probably) have been chattering a lot about Pearl Harbor in the wake of this earthquake. With the implication — or outright statement — that the Japs had it coming. Because the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, I guess? It’s almost laughably absurd to me that people can even think of being hostile to someone because their grandfathers attacked our grandfathers (never mind the fact that our grandfathers attacked them back, so I think we’re quits now)… but that’s not really what this is about. This is a panicked response, a way to say “this will not happen to me or anybody I love.” Blaming and othering the victim helps people feel safer. The assholes who are going all, “yarr, this is for Pearl Harbor!” are doing it because they’re scared.

The third response, almost the opposite, is to connect ourselves in any way we can. We think, “Who do I know in Japan, in all the other Pacific areas where the tsunamis hit?” Part of it is so we can find out whether people we care about are safe, but part of it is a weird human desire to be part of the tragedy. I have no doubt that in the next few days I will hear everybody talking about whatever their closest connection to the Japanese earthquake is — whether a friend of theirs is living in Japan, or they’ve visited there and been inside one of the buildings that was destroyed, or their best friend is from Japan and all her cousins live there. At the same time as we want to reassure ourselves that this can’t and won’t happen to us, we want to tell ourselves that this did happen to us. That somehow, one way or another, we are also affected.

Humanity is a strange, beautiful, and terrible thing. Not individual humanity (though that is too) but collective humanity, our awareness and connection to people on the other side of the globe, people we will go our entire lives without ever meeting or talking to. People whose impact on our lives is so removed as to be negligible. If any one of the hundreds (probably thousands, when the full count is in) of people who died because of this earthquake had died of a heart attack, I would never have known. But in a far distant sense, I am connected to them and they to me. We are bound together, by flesh and blood, by wires and signals. We are part of one another, and the tragedy that has overtaken their lives shakes mine as well.

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