Disasters seem to knit us together in ways that only collective pain can accomplish. On February 1st, 2011, Chicago was devoured by a blizzard that dropped two feet of snow in twelve hours. Medical offices were shut down, the grocery store shelves were anxiously emptied, and the dangerous race on Lake Shore Drive was brought to a deadly standstill (photo above). So, the next morning, when men and women emerged into the vast whiteness, armed with shovels and snow blowers, what was the expression on their faces? Almost invariably, it was a smile.
People laughed at each other from behind front stoops obscured by drifts. People met in the middle of half-plowed streets and shook hands. People coordinated rescue missions: the weakest were cared for while the strong banded together to clear their neighbors’ driveways and sidewalks.
What happened that morning, as neighborhoods came together in a seemingly joyful celebration of nature’s fury? Perhaps it was just a bunch of adults made kids again by Mother Nature’s snow day edict. But I think something more, something deeper, was happening. I think we human creatures hunger for community, for an experience to share and a common purpose within that experience. We hunger for a group of people who are in this life-thing with us. But I think our communal muscles have grown weak and atrophied with unuse. It may be that, in these times, the only experiences that propel us into community are disasters.
Disasters seem to knit us together, and the ties that bind us may be proportional: the bigger and more painful the disaster, the more widespread the community and the deeper our sense of connection. Do you remember when the Towers came down? Do you remember that evening, when Congress sang on the steps of the Capital, and even the most anti-jingoistic among us had itchy eyes? Do you remember the week afterward, when people of various political and religious persuasions came together to support and care for each other? Because regardless of your voting preference or how you parsed your theology, the pain was all the same, wasn’t it? Disaster brings pain, and pain binds, and bonds bring community. Perhaps community is the redemption of disaster.
In the decade since that disastrous day, natural disasters have become punctuation marks in the worldwide story. A hurricane named Katrina, a holiday tsunami in the Indian Ocean, a life-leveling earthquake in Haiti, and another tsunami that triggered a nuclear crisis that won’t be resolved for a century. Each wave of destruction reminded us that we are in this together, that our commonality exceeds our division, and that we have a responsibility to each other. But each time, that sense of community receded, because that sense of community is a feeling, and feelings come and go, and maybe we don’t believe it’s possible to transform that feeling into something that is real and tangible and growing in the world.
The torment of nature is one form of disaster, but in my office, every day, I meet with people who have endured countless personal disasters. Whether it was a spouse who never thought it would go that far with their co-worker, or an older sibling who cared more about his libido than about a little-girl heart, or a car accident that changed everything, or the death of a child or a sibling or a spouse or a parent or a grandparent, the disaster leveled you and changed the face of your life. And the question is caught in your throat and it’s hard to breathe it out: what now? The answer can begin to take shape in the therapeutic space, because whether or not you know it, your disaster has already begun to propel you into the arms of community; in this case, it is a small and hidden community of two. And the work of the therapeutic space, if it is to heal you, will propel you into the arms of a wider community—friends and family you can trust, and people who share your passion and desires for the world.
Interestingly, the goal of the therapeutic work is not to somehow erase the disaster that brought you there, or to prevent all future disasters. To do that would be to cease living. Rather, we can become protected from the fullness of disaster by the birth of community. The film, 127 Hours, depicts the real-life disaster of Aron Ralston, a canyoneer who, in 2003, found himself trapped in a deeply isolated Utah canyon, with his right arm pinned between an immovable boulder and the canyon wall. After five days of parched survival, he elected to amputate his own arm with a dull knife, and he eventually clawed his way out of the canyon and back to the world. When I started the movie, I expected a tale focused on the resilience of the human spirit. But Aron Ralston chose to tell a different story with his disaster. The movie depicts him trapped in the canyon and recalling his decisions to live an isolated life, empty of community. The result, of course, is that no one knows where he is, and no one is going to come find him. After his rescue, Aron Ralston changed his life, but it wasn’t to eliminate danger and to avoid disaster. He still hikes canyons. But he has a wife now, and a kid, and a network of friends, and they are attending to him—they know where he is, and sometimes they even go there with him.
Disaster propels us into the arms of community. But maybe we don’t need to wait for the next disaster to decide that building community is going to be the work of our lives. Maybe we can begin by remembering that the four walls we live within are a kind of illusion, an artificial barrier to community. Maybe we can remember that the people next door, and the people in the houses all up and down our street, and in the car next to us, and in the cubicle across the way, and behind us in the line at the supermarket, and on the other end of a blog post, are embroiled in essentially the same life-game that we are. They want enough food on the table, so the stomach doesn’t howl. They want their homes to be warm, their bodies working properly, and their children thriving. They want to wake up with a sense of anticipation, to fall to sleep with a sense of peace, and they want everything in between to be saturated with a sense of meaning and purpose. And, always, they want to feel less alone. Because when our arms are pinned in the canyons of life, we all want to know that someone is paying attention and that someone is looking for us in our pain. And even if we lose a limb, we want know that someone is there to carry us out of our canyons, and that they will be there for the healing. Maybe it’s time to decide that community is not just a feeling that wells up when disaster strikes. Maybe we need to become active creators of community, right here and right now. Maybe we should begin this hard, but healing, work. Yesterday.