Human helplessness and human resilience are two topics with which our media and politicians — obsessed as always by the sensation of the moment — have trouble. It behooves us in the aftermath of two grand slam hurricanes to ponder questions larger than what size winds and how much money.
Such questions are huge: just not so huge as questions like . . . well, what else do we expect, this being a world where trouble can blow up on a moment’s notice?
That’s part of it. There’s another part, also overlooked by recorders of the immediate, the here and now. That part is human resilience — the astounding ability to take it on the chin, from war or nature, and restore something like order. Good old spring-back, bounce-back, never-say-die, just-keep-a-comin’ resilience.
Resilience doesn’t cancel out the consequences of human suffering — the pain, the death, the loss. It lends to those consequences dignity and meaning. There is beauty in resilience: more than in fat, dumb, painless enjoyment of fat, dumb, painless circumstances.
We need to keep these things much in mind as we contemplate the hammer strokes dealt by nature to that beautiful (if increasingly tacky) stretch of America called the Gulf Coast South.
We have been subjected for weeks to yammering about human responsibility in the hurricane disasters. More is to come — more yammering, I mean. The lawyers and political partisans see it as their duty. A larger duty, for which they have infinitely less zest, is to remind their audiences that life itself, not just life on the Gulf Coast, is an uncertain proposition, and no amount of science and government can render it otherwise. Hurricanes happen, as do droughts, floods, earthquakes, plagues, invasions and wars. It’s always been so. It always will be.
We commission government to shield us from bad things, only to find that government — made up of fallible human beings like ourselves — lacks the necessary magical powers. Now and then government, through blindness or good intentions gone wrong, actually makes things worse — as with the construction in New Orleans of levees that apparently made the city more, not less, vulnerable to storms.
The blame fest initiated by media and politicians during Katrina takes no account of these circumstances. Inasmuch as the Lord God Jehovah continues to be exempt from impeachment proceedings, we kick out at those within easier reach — FEMA, "Brownie," the president, Congress. As if government ever, anywhere, succeeded at abolishing the pitfalls of an existence the Christian religion calls "fallen" and that history shows to be riddled with folly and mistakes.
The other side of the coin is more inspiring. Circumstances, as we know from history, can knock people flat. The victims lie there for a space; then, gradually, they stir. They rise to their feet; they get on with life — not because government stuffs money in their pockets or mops their brows but because that’s how people are, and it’s wondrous to see.
We’ve seen it, indeed, again and again. I’ve always liked the old Clark Gable-Jeanette MacDonald movie "San Francisco" for what it advertises about the human spirit. An earthquake flattens Frisco. And at the end of the picture, the refugees — the "evacuees," to use Jesse Jackson terminology — are marching from their camp outside the city back to the city itself to pick up their lives and to rebuild.
All right, it’s just a hokey old movie, but faithful in its hokey-ness to the energy and dauntlessness of human spirits never laid completely low by disaster, never given to awaiting the fatal crunch of history’s wheel.
The cussedness and courage of the human race are — rather, will be, if the partisans don’t obstruct our view — the great story of this disastrous September. Bad stuff, awful stuff, happens. We can’t prevent it. What we can prevent are the anger and despair that come of cursing, rather than contending with, catastrophe.
The present need isn’t for scapegoats. The need is for faith in humanity’s stronger, brighter, resilient side: the side that looks at disaster and says, OK, the first thing we do now is . . .