In September of 2003, Hurricane Isabel hit the East Coast. I’m sure almost nobody remembers it, but I’m from DC, where hurricanes are as rare as nice weather is here, so it was basically the highlight of my year. We didn’t get hit too hard but a small tree fell down in my best friend’s yard, directly across the street. Immediately, I went over. We started playing among the branches, and my friend’s father asked if we could start breaking some of the smaller branches off. In a bit, my father came over with a saw to cut the trunk into sections. Our fathers told us we could go inside, but we didn’t want to, we were having too much fun. Then, from seemingly everywhere, dozens of other kids poured out of houses and alleys to play on the fallen tree, and strip it of branches. We weren’t even being crazy kids, hopped up on Kool-aid and cookies, we actually stripped the whole tree bare, filling tons of trash bags with twigs and branches and leaves and then lugging the bags to the curb. We left as night approached because the streetlights had lost power too.
The next day however, I went outside to finish clearing the tree, expecting to have to drag my best friend out to help me, but he was already there, working and laughing with three other neighborhood kids.
Reading Solnit’s piece on disasters reminded me of those two days, in particular how she relates disasters to carnivals. Hurricane Isabel was a disaster, shutting down the Federal Government for a few days, causing roughly fifty deaths across the Mid-Atlantic States, along with several billion dollars worth of damage, yet it wasn’t a sad time for me. I had never been in immediate danger, nor had anyone I knew. We lost power for a day, but many in the block surrounding lost it for much longer, and as dinnertime approached on the second day of stripping the tree, adults along the street started coming out of their houses, carrying food and tables. Tables were set up in the street; someone brought out a boom box and another a grill. People came from blocks away, many without power at all, to eat and laugh and marvel at the naked tree still lying in the street, and we had a block party the likes of which I’ve never seen since.
Solnit, I believe, is correct. Disaster is an inconvenience and disruption to normal life, but this isn’t bad. For two days, school was cancelled and I played and knew neighbors I would never have met otherwise. Maybe it was the sense of relief that we had survived unscathed, that we had braved this supernatural, natural disaster, and we were letting off steam celebrating. The specter of death and destruction had passed, and we could, for the first time in a long time, appreciate how beautiful life was. We started to appreciate the littler things in life, like a friendly hello, giving and receiving a helping hand, and friendship, because in the face of uncontrollable, dangerous fate, we realize they are what matters to us most.
On the third day however, school was back, the streets were cleared, the random neighborhood kids were gone, and I had dinner inside with just my family. The disconcerting part of human nature is not, as Hobbes argues, the possibility we are self-serving, because this obsession with self is constantly grappling with our empathy. The disconcerting part of human nature is that after we have “saved” all those needing to be saved, our empathy wanes; that we will work together to achieve a common good and then we will isolate ourselves.