The Meaning of Disaster
A personal perspective from a disaster mental health responder.
Posted May 23, 2017
I originally delivered this piece a few years ago during a disaster mental health training conducted by Disaster Psychiatry Outreach (update: now Vibrant's Crisis Emotional Care Team). I want to share it here.
Disaster work has many dimensions, layer upon layer of meanings, some rapidly shifting, some relatively still. The meanings of disaster are given voice through the dense interplay of both words and silence, within oneself and among ourselves. The meanings are very personal, often private, and vary a great deal from individual to individual and group to group. I can only speak for myself, but I hope I touch upon enough things that what I say means something to everyone here—even if only by my omission you are spurred to contemplation. I hope there is time today for us to take some time to meander aimlessly together, to speak candidly and warmly, and give voice and form to unbidden experiences, which we might ordinarily let slip by unannounced.
There is an element of the sacred in this work, when we venture into burial grounds amidst the scent of death, and grieving families. There is exultation and guilt, which accompanies survival. There is the shame of voyeurism and the inevitable traction of curiosity. Curiosity is an organizing principle, both intellectual and emotional. We wish to understand and create meaning, and we wish to experience what it is like. Disasters can be like a deadly mistress, a black widow luring one into her web. We are struggling with our own mortality, perhaps, and perhaps part of the meaning of disaster response is to try to master feelings about death, for some.
Disasters can have an erotic appeal. Some branches of medicine, for example, are sexier than others—brain surgery and cardiothoracic surgery are sexier than repairing hernias all day long, and sexier than treating mundane and common medical complaints. Death and eroticism. Is that part of what makes disasters meaningful? Humanity’s perennial attempt to make meaning of life in the face of life’s uncertainties and finitude?
Disasters are a surprise, often. Sometimes we can see them coming and have some time to reflect and prepare, as in the case of a brewing storm. We can prepare and make meaning ahead of time. Human beings make meaning to allay fears, telling stories around fires, safe within glowing caves from the predators and darkness outside.
Disasters change reality in the blink of an eye, even when we can see it coming. Time slows down, a consequence of threat on the brain. Disasters break through the denial with which we protect ourselves every day from stark realities. In a very basic sense, meaning-making is a uniquely human coping strategy. We make meaning to weave the flax of terror into the gold of wisdom. We make meaning so we can teach others, and especially younger generations, so they can do a better job than we did. We make meaning because if we don’t make meaning, life is meaningless. Is a meaningless life empty, stagnant, full of numbness and vague, sometimes more pronounced, existential, emotional or spiritual pain?
We find meaning in community. We may make meaning alone, but when we make meaning together, when we share meaning, when we break bread together, we are not alone. Many of us do not want to be alone when we die. We would hold hands. Some of us would go off to be alone as not to be seen perhaps, in pain and weakness, or not to burden others.
Disasters teach us what is important and what is not important. Adversity in general teaches us about life. The community and morality which disaster evokes shows us the best of what we can do together. Disaster forces us to be smarter, more adaptive, but disasters also put us on the spot and sometimes we make poor choices. We are interested in lessons learned.
Disasters raise questions...why this person, and not that person? Why now, and not some other time? Why was I spared, the fleeting moments on which fate turns, the subway delay, the forgotten wallet. Disasters can show us why we shouldn’t wait to address important things, the way a life-threatening illness sometimes can do. Disasters can also be consuming, leading us to push ourselves too hard for too long, because there aren’t enough hands on deck. Disasters allow us to feel special, heroic, useful, helpful, sometimes. We can also feel humble, part of a team, part of something bigger than us. Disasters are about being human. The Biblical flood represents a very primal disaster—a cleansing, divine punishment, perhaps. In Sri Lanka I asked a Buddhist taxi driver why he thought some died and some were spared. He said they must have done something wrong in a past life.
Disaster means something different to everyone, yet something undeniably similar if not the same. Disasters help us to see how people and groups with different fundamental beliefs and agendas can find a way to collaborate, at least for a time. Disasters make us long for this joining together in constructive activity, when there is no pressing need. We have trouble putting resources into preparing when there are no hell-hounds nipping close at our heels.
Disasters make life more complex, and disasters make life much simpler. Do we long for simplicity? Disasters grant this wish, at least for a short space of time. The sense of purpose is a powerful kind of meaning, clarity of goals, an immediate press of needs to address, and no time to think too much. We can think about it later, perhaps...When we settle back into normality, if we have that luxury, or we make the time for that necessity.
They show us our place in the cosmos, how tiny we are and how great we are. The show us the full scope of humankind’s evil and grace, and the fierce power of nature in the face of which nothing can stand. Sometimes they show us what the consequences of our actions are, intended and unintended. They show us the limits of prediction and control, and the limits and heights of our own abilities. The teach us to work together more effectively, to coordinate, to communicate.
Disasters are about being human. These terrible events force us to examine who we are, they don’t give us time to fake it in the heat of the moment, they show us who we are in the moment, and looking back. Sometimes we like what we see, and sometimes we don’t. Disasters show us beauty in our humanity, and show us that we are all part of one family, in the best sense possible. Sometimes we learn that the best and only thing we can do is to simply be there, trying to be present as a way of holding, containing and bearing witness.
These terrible events bring out the best and the worst in our species. They bring us to our highest peaks, our most admirable roll-up-the-sleeves determination, and they bring us to the depths of self-neglect, and sacrifice. They bring out the swindlers and the cheats, the sociopaths and the cons. Disasters show us a face of reality we don’t always get to see, and don’t always want to see.
Disasters can mean making lasting relationships, sharing in collective experiences of joy, pain, grief, pride, memorialization and growth, trying to study and learn together for the impossible-to-fully-predict next time…and sometimes simply sharing good cheer around a hearth, in fellowship.
I believe, when all is said and done, there are many motives for trying to take care of people, in whatever particular way—for me, whether as a clinician in my office, as a teacher and supervisor in the hospital, as a parent and spouse at home, as a family member and friend, or as a disaster responder. Some motives are related to personal losses and efforts to make sense of those experiences, a way perhaps of making sense of childhood, even trying to undo failing to save others or alleviate feelings about such inevitable tragedies. Some are related to a desire to understand and better address disaster-related matters as a clinician, caregiver, or researcher… as a professional. A desire to be useful and helpful. Some motives are less comfortable—for thrill and excitement, for aggrandizement beyond usual needs for positive self-regard, out of self-destructive tendencies, for personal gain, or out of unresolved personal conflicts enacted in ways unhelpful or even harmful to those who need care. It is important to keep a dialogue open about our motives, and how we decide to use our limited resources effectively and responsibly. Fundamentally, I find that the most compelling meanings of disaster work arise out of love and compassion, the imperfect practice of giving freely of oneself to alleviate suffering, without expecting anything in return.