Author and activist Rebecca Solnit has written about everything from mansplaining to the history of photography and motherhood in the modern age. But some of her most profound thinking and writing is on the topic of hope and connection that can grow in the aftermath of devastating disasters.
Solnit wrote about this topic following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and in her book Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Appearing on an episode of Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being last year, Solnit discussed how the news often relegates disasters to just that: disasters. What headlines often fail to mention is the undeniable strength of community, the role of resilience and what Solnit calls “metaphysical senses of connection” to other humans, and ourselves, that can arise amid or after catastrophe.
The news tells us that “human beings are fragile, disasters are terrible, and we’re either terrified, because we’re fragile, or our morality is so fragile we revert to our best-deal savage, social, Darwinist, Hobbesian nature,” Solnit told Tippett. While it’s true that disasters are terrible and it’s more than fair to be terrified of them, what Solnit seems to be getting at is that this view of human nature flattens how complex and compassionate we can be during hardships. This duality, as Solnit describes it, doesn’t account for how even horrific events can bring people together on a profound, perhaps spiritual level.
“There’s a way disaster throws people into the present and sort of gives them this supersaturated immediacy that also includes a deep sense of connection. It’s as though in some violent gift you’ve been given a kind of spiritual awakening where you’re close to mortality in a way that makes you feel more alive, you’re deeply in the present, and can let go of past and future, and your personal narrative, in some ways,” she told Tippett.
“You have shared an experience with everyone around you, and you often find very direct, but also metaphysical senses of connection to the people you suddenly have something in common with,” she said. “And then oftentimes, the people who do the really important work in disasters, which doesn’t get talked about much, are the neighbors. Who’s going to rescue you when your building collapses? When the ice storm comes and the power goes out? It’s probably going to be the neighbors.”
Solnit also touched on the role of hope in these moments, and what hope means to her in the first place. “Hopefulness is really, for me, is not optimism, that everything’s going to be fine and we can just sit back. Hope, for me, just means a Buddhist sense of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know what will happen, and that there’s maybe room for us to intervene. And that we have to let go of the certainty people seem to love more than hope, and know that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
While this wisdom can’t negate how hard the recovery process is after a disaster, it can bring some much needed strength and a reminder that you’re not alone.
Listen to the whole interview here.