disaster utopia

Last night I attended a lecture by the writer Rebecca Solnit, whose latest book is entitled A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. I haven’t read the book yet, although I have read some of her others. Her premise is that far from human beings acting cowardly or panicking in times of natural and man-made disasters,  people instead end up acting incredibly courageous and compassionate, working together to form ad-hoc communities, and expressing their basic human goodness. Solnit suggests that in disaster, we can almost glimpse a kind of utopia, a place where we treat each other as we should. Our daily life makes it almost impossible to sustain this type of behavior, however. We remember the post-9/11 United We Stand mantra, and how quickly it faded when our president told us to go shopping. It is our identification of ourselves as primarily consumers first, and citizens second, that is at the heart of the tragedy of our current American public life. We’ve been told that we need to be selfish because everyone else is and the more I think about this, the more I understand that this is the driving force behind the current ultraconservative, right-wing talk show blather. The talking heads of the world would have us believe that they love this country, but instead they really just love themselves. If you start from the premise that it’s every man and woman for themselves and that we don’t owe each other anything as fellow citizens then you can’t even begin to approach public life in any meaningful way. Solnit suggests there are other lives than the private. Did we evolve this far as Americans just to demand our right to be left alone? She also said something that stuck with me: in disasters perhaps we discover our Buddha-nature. We all have Buddha-nature, but have trouble finding it or expressing it. We are already enlightened beings, compassionate and wise. If we would forget the self, as Master Dogen suggests, then the barriers between us would drop away and we could treat each other as the fully human beings we are rather than as the means to our own personal ends.

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