Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Zen of Disasters

This article in Harper's magazine posted online is an interesting take on Katrina and disasters in general. Living in the present, one of the goals of religion, even with the Hereafter in mind, is often brought about by prayer, reflection, and a complete breakdown of structure, intentional or imposed. Here's an excerpt. You may read the whole thing HERE.

In his 1961 study, “Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies,” sociologist Charles Fritz asks an interesting question: “Why do large-scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?” One of the answers is that a disaster shakes us loose of ordinary time. “In everyday life many human problems stem from people's preoccupation with the past and the future, rather than the present,” Fritz wrote. “Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and the future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs.” This shift in awareness, he added, “speeds the process of decision-making” and “facilitates the acceptance of change.”

The state of mind Fritz describes resembles those sought in various spiritual traditions. It recalls Buddhism's emphasis on being in the moment, nonattachment, and compassion for all beings, and the Christian monastic tradition's emphasis on awareness of mortality and ephemerality. From this perspective, disaster can be understood as a crash course in consciousness.

. . . . The aftermath of disaster is often peculiarly hopeful, and in the rupture of the ordinary, real change often emerges. But this means that disaster threatens not only bodies, buildings, and property but also the status quo. Disaster recovery is not just a rescue of the needy but also a scramble for power and legitimacy, one that the status quo usually-but not always-wins. The Bush Administration's response after 9/11 was a desperate and extreme version of this race to extinguish too vital a civil society and reestablish the authority that claims it alone can do what civil society has just done-and, alas, an extremely successful one. For the administration, the crisis wasn't primarily one of death and destruction but one of power. The door had been opened and an anxious administration hastened to slam it shut.


Blogger Abdul-Halim V. said...

that's a really different way of thinking about disasters. for reasons i'm not sure i can get into, i've been thinking about trauma alot. And so I've been around people who think about Katrina as a source of trauma and so in the aftermath you are left with people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

The same was true in 9/11. And even alot of the therapists and other workers who were trying to help survivors cope end up suffering from some form of trauma themselves.

But I can also see you have a point and that if people are wrestling with regret or anxiety about the future, disasters have a way of focusing you on the present. And I guess there may be people who have "moments of clarity" in stressful situations and maybe are the better for it. But in general, I'm not sure if disasters are therapeutic..

9/25/2005 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The comment made in regard to the purpose of the US Administraton's feverish effort for 'normality" after the 9/11 attack had never occurred to me. I did wonder however why we as a society are always eager to erase an unpleasantness, quite understated for the 9/11 attack for sure; but the point I am trying to make is that I often wondered why things have to be returned to the way they were, as much as humanly possible, instead of being left as a reflection and possible creation of something better and beyond what the destruction rendered fleeting.

12/02/2005 7:59 PM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Thoughtful comment, Anon. Once you said it, it seemed like a logical thing to ask, though the question never came to my mind. There are probably reasons that we do this, some of them primal, returning to some point, an origin of sorts, Creator. But also, we are conditioned, socially and economically, to restore what has "worked" especially for those who make most of the decisions. When the latter ethic dominates you have a nation of very boring and docile folk, manipulatable too. Nice question.

12/03/2005 10:09 AM  

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