April is a month of unfurling blooms and songbird eggs hatching. A month of gray skies and rain. It’s a changeable month that promises new life.
Not entirely. A friend said, “What is it about mid-April that brings so much tragedy?” She was referring to the bombing at the Boston Marathon but she had plenty of evidence. Just in the U.S. alone:
– Abraham Lincoln assassinated
– Titanic sank – Great Mississippi Flood (1927, worst flood in US history)
– VA Tech shooting
– 1906 earthquake in San Francisco
– Lethal end of the Branch Davidian standoff
– Oklahoma City bombing
– Columbine school shooting
– Deepwater Horizon explosion
Horrific events, every one. It’s entirely natural that our attention is drawn to such disasters, especially as they’re happening. Way back in prehistory, those who paid close attention to every detail when someone was attacked by a predator were more likely to avoid the same fate. Their bodies and minds were primed with vividly awful but useful information, hence they survived and passed along those disaster-attentive genes. These days, our attention is pulled toward all sorts of disasters, although the information isn’t useful in the same way. Too much attention to what’s wrong in the world, and we’re likely to end up with Mean World Syndrome.
Threat also compels us to engage our full potential, to “rise to the occasion” whatever it might be. No wonder that those who want us to marshall our resources for their own purposes try to convince us there’s a grave threat. This is done by football coaches trying to motivate teams as well as political pundits spewing angry conspiracy theories, because it works.
But rising to our full potential means we humans pull together in a crisis. Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”
I don’t think mid-April leans any closer to tragedy than other times of the year. Like every moment on Earth, it’s packed with constant, unnoticed acts of cooperation and beauty.
I dreamed once that what each of us contribute to this world, maybe to worlds beyond, is an energy fingerprint. All our striving and accomplishment are wisps lost to time but this fingerprint of energy remains and affects all other energy. It’s the overall attitude that matters—grateful or bitter, loving or hateful, aware or dismissive. Whether that’s true or not, I do believe that even in the midst of tragedy we can choose an attitude of hope and compassion. Blame, anger, and vindictiveness isn’t the fingerprint I want to leave.
There’s an excellent book called “How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society.” The author, C. John Sommerville, talks about how being plugged into a worldwide information network skews our view of the world by heaping an entire planet’s worth of disaster, tragedy, atrocity, depravity, corruption and every other sort of badness on us day in and day out without letup. Yet if we unplug from it, and just experience the world that we actually live in and touch — our neighborhood and town, the people we encounter in daily life — we see that violence, evil, chaos and tragedy are the exception, not the rule.
Sommerville is certainly right. It sounds like his findings echo George Gerbner’s earlier work on Mean World Syndrome and Marshall McLuhan’s work on the medium as the message. I think the quality of news source has a lot to do with it, particularly if media consumers get some background and depth with their news. But yes, tragedy and evil are the exception. Thank goodness.
My friend Ruth’s musing on tragedy happening more often in April is now online, with handy charts to prove her point. See what you think: http://geekmom.com/2013/04/does-more-tragedy-happen-in-april/#comment-17657