Do we humans "need" tragedies to bring us together?
Every so often, amidst the frequent incivility and conflict in society, we notice reductions in the angry “noise” emanating from the media and politics. For a while at least, sounds of animosity diminish, and people are, well, "nicer" to each other. Ironically, these temporary respites occur during times of major tragedies.
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are fresh in our minds, having wrought chaos and havoc. They and recent earthquakes, wildfires, and flooding have left terrible physical devastation and human suffering in their wake, and will no doubt do so in the future. (Mother Nature’s ferocity may now be abetted by our role in global warming).
In addition to natural catastrophes, we have experienced significant tragedies which were entirely planned and carried out by humans: Mass school shootings, assassinations, and terrorist attacks always strike us to the core.
Both natural and human-engineered disasters have been increasing throughout the world. Whether serendipitous or intended, these cataclysmic events are marked by shock, bewilderment, and pain experienced by the victims, and by millions of media watchers.
We witness the inflicted physical ravages and poignant human suffering, and we are riveted. We might wish to turn away from our screens, but we can't avert our gaze.
But it’s not prurience which keeps us captivated: We feel vulnerable and want to learn more to protect our loved ones from similar disasters. Repetitive viewing enables us to grasp the scope of the disasters and helps us cope. We shore up our emotional defenses and we empathize with the victims and other viewers.
Natural human impulses of empathy and communality are aroused and intensified. People of different ethnic groups, races, ages, and socioeconomic levels feel just as we do, and we sense an implicit kinship. Even as mere spectators, we feel almost as if we are "there" sharing the pain of those most intimately affected.
We ask ourselves plaintively, "Why is this happening?” We try to make some sense of these events and attach meaning to them, if indeed there is any to be revealed.
During these crises, however, our various media screens are “quieter.” We hear fewer antagonistic political and social conflicts and more discussions about the needs of victims and how we can help.
We also can't help but notice extraordinary acts of kindness, caring, and courage done by a variety of individuals and groups.
We take for granted that the police, National Guard, military, and other emergency workers will do the critical protective and rescue work they are being “paid to do.” But these first responders go above and beyond their calls of duty, and demonstrate tireless, brave, and ennobling efforts to help those in need.
There are also volunteers from nearby neighborhoods or other towns or states (or even countries) working selflessly on behalf of the victims. They support, rescue, carry, and feed to alleviate the burdens of those affected.
Perhaps more inspiring are the helpers who are themselves victims, who show remarkable sacrifice while dedicating themselves to helping their neighbors in even more duress.
All of these individuals are obviously fulfilling their “civic duties” as dictated by explicit laws governing behaviors. They are also addressing their responsibilities to the implicit "social contract," on which a civilized society depends.
But these truly heroic efforts are NOT dutifully performed because of adherence to "civic" codes of behavior or legal expectations. What they ARE expressing are their deeply natural, "instinctual" human tendencies to “civility," encompassing empathy, caring, altruism, morality, and communality.
In addition to the noble souls on the front lines, the rest of us are also drawn to caring. We too wish to help and contribute, to provide support and solace.
During these tragedies, the "social atmosphere" is seemingly transformed. For mere “moments in time,” polemical politicians and pundits are muted, disrespect and disparagement are reduced, anger and conflict are diminished.
What becomes most important is the safety of the victims, and in that temporary respite, Caring and Love vanquish Conflict and Hate.
If this state of comity is possible to achieve during times of turmoil and disaster, might there yet be hope for more permanent civility, and even for the viability of our species?
At the risk of sounding naive, I believe there is nothing more important for our survival than how we treat each other. Rather than anger, animosity, and armaments, we need kindness, caring, and communality.
We need to put our impressive human brain power to work on the challenge of getting people to treat each other with respect and compassion.
Like the international impetus to control our carbon footprint, there needs to be an equivalent effort towards achieving a positive emotional footprint. Our goal should be to engender respect, empathy, and peace, and to diminish incivility, conflict, and hostility.
We know that we’re capable of achieving temporary comity and peace. Our critical challenge is to make this an overriding goal for humanity, without the “need” for tragic disasters.
If we can accomplish this, we indeed do have a chance to enhance our lives, and to survive as a species.