If you, like me, have come to dread the anniversary of 9/11, with all its attendant angst, Rebecca Solnit’s new book, “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster” could provide some solace and/or diversion. I’ve not read it, only read Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times and Steven Winn’s in the San Francisco Chronicle, but I wholeheartedly agree with Solnit’s premise, that most people respond heroically in emergencies large and small and, in fact, derive satisfaction from their generous actions.
From Publisher’s Weekly: “Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the elite panic of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations.”
According to the reviewers, Solnit documents racist policies that made the Katrina situation worse and notes that more people should have been able to escape. She quotes a minister: “Can you imagine during 9/11, the thousands who fled on foot to the Brooklyn Bridge…? What if they had been met by six or eight police cars blocking the bridge, and cops firing warning shots to turn them back?”
Says Solit: “The joy in disaster comes, when it comes from that purposefulness, the immersion in service and survival, and from an affection that is not private and personal but civic: the love of strangers for each other, of a citizen for his or her city, of belonging to a greater whole, of doing the work that matters.”
In workplace situations that don’t count as disasters, such as when a valued colleague leaves and everyone pitches in to get the work done, I have seen this kind of “social capital” at work, people immersing themselves in service, pitching in to get the work done, and feeling good about their efforts.
Solit calls it “paradise” when a community pulls together to pursue a survival goal and achieves a sort of euphoria. And I’d like to think that I, as an individual, could achieve the same high if I could manage to pull myself together – and somehow, once and for all, organize my time — to reach a goal.
As quoted by Garner, Solnit shows the way: “Her overarching thesis can probably be boiled down to this sentence: ‘The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure’ — without disaster, that is — ‘is the great contemporary task of being human.’ “
In September the Jewish calendar starts over, a new school year begins, and — no matter what our religion — we get to start over. I’m going to try not to look backwards at September 11, but forward from that date. Quoting Solit: “Just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster, that we revert to something we already know how to do. The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”