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The Silver Lining of Disaster

October 30, 2010
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Before reading this post, please answer the poll question below:

Disasters occur constantly.  They affect different people at different times, but when a person is a target of disaster, he or she may feel hopeless.  While disasters seem to be the antithesis of the University of Michigan School of Literature, Science and the Arts’ theme this semester (what makes life worth living), people should consider a different outlook.  I realized this upon reading Rebecca Solnit’s article “Disaster: Notes on bad weather and good government.”

Disasters have many more positive outcomes than most people would think.  As Solnit said, “in disaster the impact is shared.”  This collective impact creates a sense of community for those who are suffering.  People are brought together who may never have willingly come together before.  This was evident in my family when my aunt was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer four years ago.  While my family members would get together for the major holidays, they were not very close and there was often tension.  Upon the diagnosis of my aunt’s cancer, all of my aunts started to call each other regularly and over time, even planned vacation weekends together.  They wanted to make the end of my aunt’s life special.  Now that my aunt has passed away, my aunts are still very close and maintain the traditions that they started with my late aunt.  From an outsider’s perspective, I think that my family realized how fragile life is and that they should be respectful of their loved ones.  As tragic as this incident was, it strengthened the bond in my family.

Besides a sense of community, tragedies force people to live in the present.  As Solnit described, “disaster can be understood as a crash course in consciousness.”  So many people are lost in their worries about what will happen tomorrow, or they are dwelling on mistakes they made in the past.  When an incident occurs that is unexpected, they must change their state of thought in order to problem solve and overcome obstacles that they face in the present.  Even though the present may seem negative at first, in the moment that a disaster occurs, people will think of what matters to them most.  For instance, during the terrorist attacks of 911, some people who were in hijacked planes called their loved ones to say goodbye.  Some said “I love you” for the first time in a while, realizing that it may be their last chance to do so.  This opportunity to remember what matters in life helps people put things into perspective.  While they may be stressed with their jobs or conflicts, they should remember all that they have and they should be grateful.  This opportunity to live in the present causes people to focus on what is important in life, such as their family and friends.  So, in the end, what seems to be the antithesis of what makes life worth living actually makes life worth living.

Think again about how you answered the poll.  Unlike what you may have originally thought, there is in fact a silver lining to disaster.

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9 Comments
  1. shan428 permalink
    October 31, 2010 3:58 PM

    I agree with the author of this blog to a certain extent because I too believe in what Rebecca Solnit said in her article about the impact of disasters. While disasters can be catastrophic, such as the attacks on 9/11, they can have a positive impact on those directly and indirectly affected.

    My response is toward your example on the 9/11 attacks, and this is where I have different opinions on the impact of disasters. I’m originally from New York and my father works in the city along with all of my relatives, so the attacks of 9/11 had a substantial affect on our lives and have forever changed certain aspects of how we live. This catastrophe was so monumental that people all over the country, even those who have never been to New York or even known someone who lived there, still responded to this disaster. In the months after the attacks, we saw that throughout the country there was the overwhelming support towards the troops, victims in this disaster, and to New York City as a whole.

    I think that as long as people are able to grow from disasters and acknowledge what has happened, then we can learn from events that hurt us. However, while these disasters can bring people together and open outlooks and change mindsets, the reactions to the attacks that bonded us as a nation during our time of mourning ago have dissolved. What happened to all the patriotism of American flags hanging above doorsteps and “Proud to Be American” t shirts, stickers and songs on the radio? Are we back to celebrating only one day in which we show our unity and gratitude toward the liberty and freedom that were jeopardized nine years ago?

    Disasters do make us, for the most part, reassess our lives and our relationships, but unfortunately their impacts are not always permanent. It is true that disasters are unexpected and force us to change our actions and possibly make us reconsider steps in our paths of life. However, these re-evaluations are not always substantial enough to make permanent markings. Today we continue to show division in our country and unsupportive actions towards those that continue to protect us overseas. As powerful as the response was nine years ago, the magnitude of unity is no where close to what we felt then. So yes, disasters can have silver linings, just as many things can when you look at them from an optimistic standpoint. They can temporarily bring us together, but unfortunately not always leave us with a new outlook and way of life.

    • mbhilton permalink
      November 3, 2010 2:33 PM

      There is actually something similar to this response in psychology, though it refers the level of happiness it follow the exact same pattern. There’s a theory that people have a base level of happiness and no matter what changes we experience, even major ones like becoming paraplegic or winning the lottery, we always return to that base level. It could be the same thing here, where we initially have a strong increase in patrotism that then subsides back to normalcy levels over time

      • mbhilton permalink
        November 3, 2010 2:33 PM

        sorry *patriotism

  2. Ben permalink
    October 31, 2010 4:35 PM

    The disaster of 9/11 definitely brought our country together for a short period of time, but even since we having been living in a sense of fear and been petrified of the threat of outsiders and too afraid to let this go, and now racially profile like never before Don’t you think that this is somewhat of a double-edged sword?

  3. mattwax permalink
    November 1, 2010 12:18 PM

    I do agree with certain aspects of your argument, but I would not say that disasters have too many “positive outcomes.” What they do provide is an entirely unique situation, where human nature can be observed in a light that is normally never visible. Yes couples on hijacked planes may have uttered the words “I love you” but I would never consider this to be a positive outcome. The impact of the disaster overshadows such instances. I just wouldn’t consider the sense of unity after 9-11 to even be a positive impact, but moreover a natural byproduct of the devastation that occurred earlier.

  4. Andrew Berman permalink
    November 1, 2010 9:02 PM

    Yes disaster can bring people together such as the case of your aunt, but that is on a small scale. In the cases of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, yes there was a sense of unity for a time, but fear and chaos overshadowed this unity. We are now and have been in a war with countries that have little significance to people in America. People questioned the effectiveness of our government after Katrina and the BP oil spill. Yes, disasters might bring people together, however this is overshadowed by mass negativity.

  5. reedmarcus permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:25 PM

    While disasters undoubtedly bring our nation together, I believe it shouldn’t take a disaster to strengthen our nation. If Americans would stay active and not wait until after the fact to fix our problems, it is possible disasters could be avoided. A perfect example is the disastrous affects that Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans. While many knew the infrastructure surrounding New Orleans was inadequate, people avoided the problem until disaster struck.

  6. neilrab permalink
    November 3, 2010 9:31 PM

    Times of disaster can go either way, people could unite and act together or they could regress to a state of nature, where everyone is out for themselves. Tragedies like 9/11 unite a country under a singular cause. People become vulnerable during times like these and need the support of others to deal with what happened.

    Recently one of my grandmothers passed away. All my family lives in Argentina, so I don’t get to see them very regularly. My parents always told me to call my relatives to catch up, but I always pushed it off, assuming I’d be able to do it eventually. However, I was wrong. You never know when a tragedy is going to occur, so we need to make sure to enjoy every second of our lives and take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to us.

    As for tragedies causing us to regress to a state of nature, look at the Great Depression. A lot of people at the time had nothing, no money, no homes, no food. As a result, everyone was out for themselves, trying to get anything they could, no matter if this negatively affected others.

    However, I do agree with the reedmarcus’s comment: “I believe it shouldn’t take a disaster to strengthen our nation.” We, as a nation, are stronger united, and in order to regain our title as the top superpower in the world, we need to make sure we are all on the same page and work as one.

  7. ann900 permalink
    November 9, 2010 10:30 PM

    I love the idea of great things coming from disaster. I love the togetherness of the community, how helpful everyone is, and the reunions that occur from it. But let’s be realistic, with tragedy comes great loss. I say this as a child who has dealt with a parent having cancer, from cancer comes hardship. From 9/11 came the loss of many loved ones. As much as i love to see the togetherness that these disasters bring, we can’t forget the tragedy that also came from them.

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