Every now and then, a book lands in my hands at precisely the right moment. Which is how it felt when Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell became available at my local library just hours before they closed their doors to the public in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Subtitled: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, this is a book for the moment!
The book is an investigation of a fleeting emotion, one that pours forth in moments of shared disaster and tragedy, and binds humanity together in away that day to day living simply cannot. This brief, purposeful “joy” is not something to be wished for, for to do so is to invite disaster, but rather something from which to draw courage, faith, and purpose in moments of crisis.
During these moments, Solnit writes, we see the best of society, we are united a common purpose. Everyday concerns and divides vanish. People rise to the occasion.
“What is this feeling that crops up during so many disasters?” Solnit asks. “An emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,” worth studying because it provides “an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility.” Our response to disaster gives us nothing less than “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”
The book examines five catastrophes in depth: the 1906 earthquake in San Fransisco, the Halifax explosion in 1917, the Mexico City earthquake in 1985, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. It also considers the London Blitz, Chernobyl, among other social upheavals from which come extraordinary stories of community and connectedness. In each she finds common threads of altruism, generosity, and resilience, threads that she finds humanity missing in the times in between.
We miss, for example, the surge of patriotism in the days following 9/11. We retell, in the years following the flooding in Houston, the stories of people searching with their own boats, the candlelight vigils, JJ Watt orchestrating millions of dollars in fundraising.
It can be difficult to process crisis in the midst of living it. In the last five days as “normalcy” has come to a grinding halt in many sectors of society, it’s the fear of the unknown that seems to linger from day to day rather than shared purpose or unexpected joy. We hear a lot more about running out of time, losing containment, needing supplies, and overwhelming our health care system, than we do about anything going right!
But Solnit’s book reminds us that in the weeks and years that follow these strange and uncertain days ahead, there will be stories of the triumph of the human spirit. Of the generosity simmering just beneath the surface. Of the ingenuity humming in the background. There will be heroes that emerge from the chaos. And even in a time that requires quarantines, isolation, and social distancing, we will somehow find ourselves closer and more united than we’ve been in sometime.
Take, for example, the viral videos of quarantined Italians singing together from their balconies. On a normal day, in a normal time, these displays may be cute and quaint and gather some attention, but then get lost in the next trend. Yet, in our current environment, it’s hard not to be deeply moved by the solidarity displayed.
We should not wish for tragedy, but in the face of it, neither should we shy away from the feelings it stirs in us to be better, do more, and overcome. The days ahead will be trying, and yet they will also define the people we become and the stories we will tell.
Take good care! Wash your hands. Be well.