April 16, 2011
While Congress and the President wrestle over 2012’s budget for the next month or so, playing their games of double-double-dare-you and using our lives as the chips, I thought it appropriate to write about catastrophe this week.
The word, of course, comes from the Greek verb katastrephein – to turn over – and, according to the Oxford Dictionary, currently means: 1) a great and sudden disaster, 2) a disastrous end or ruin, 3) an event producing a subversion of the natural order of things. This third definition comes closest to what I want to write about today.
Two things brought me to that topic this week (okay, three, if you count our cantankerous Congress). The first – an undefined “something” – has niggled at me off and on since I learned about peak oil, climate change, economic collapse and all the other problems we don’t seem to want to get serious about as we head toward our own cliff of catastrophe. The second – a quote in an article I read a week or two ago, over at msnbc.com – finally brought the first into sharper focus.
Everyone – doomer and non-doomer alike – has a mental picture of what catastrophe looks like. The picture differs from person to person. It may be as narrowly focused and personal as the loss of a job, home or loved one, or as broad as the destruction of a city or the collapse of society as we know it.
Doomers, of course, talk a lot about that last one. Our pictures of catastrophe may look like a scene from Mad Max, The Day After or a mongrel mix of Little House on the Prairie and High Noon. We may even talk of what catastrophe sounds, smells and tastes like. What we rarely seem to picture – except in doomer fiction, perhaps – is what catastrophe feels like.
It’s as if we doomers believe that the world will fall apart on Thursday and, by Friday, we will have hauled out the fifty-pound sacks of beans and rice, loaded the guns and be out in field pushing the hand plow behind the mule by six o’clock in the morning. Too bad, so sad, let’s get on with collapse. Or, if you prefer to survive in town, push the bodies aside, call the neighborhood meeting, make sure everyone has at least some beans and rice; now, let’s get on with collapse. And, the better prepared the doomer is, the more he or she seems to talk that way.
I don’t think it’s going to be like that, folks. Yes, we may have to do all of the above – and quickly. Just as they have had to do in Japan this past month and Haiti, Katrina and Indonesia before that. But we fool ourselves if we think the doing is all there is to it. As we deal with what catastrophe looks like, we will also have to deal with what it feels like. And out of all the pictures, articles and videos of the aftermath in Japan, nothing brought that home to me more clearly than the quote from the 64 year old Japanese woman in the msnbc.com article (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42490830/ns/world_news-asiapacific/). She said of her experience, “Something has changed. The world feels strange now. Even the way the clouds move isn’t right.”
Whether it’s the rending of a marriage, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, the destruction of whole cities by an earthquake and tsunami or the collapse of a nation’s economy, this is what catastrophe feels like.
There is a sudden heat of shock as your world shatters, the mind and body numbs as the brain struggles to reboot. Something has changed.
The numbness goes on for weeks, or months. No matter how well prepared you thought you were, you fumble around on autopilot while you struggle to put the pieces back together. They no longer fit into the familiar and comforting whole. The world feels strange now.
Large chunks of your life go missing – the sound of his gargling after he brushes his teeth; the smell of the coffee she made each morning to wake you; the drive to a job that no longer exists; the certainty that when you flip the wall switch, the lights will come on and that when you’re out of food, the grocery store will be open and stocked. Even the way the clouds move isn’t right.
I think we do not like to talk of how these things feel because we cannot really prepare ahead for that. It comes unbidden. The slashing pain of loss that grabs us when we least expect it. The constant, dull ache we fear tells us more about our weaknesses than we want to know. The deep disorientation as we struggle to build something new from pieces of what can never be put back together in the same way. The energy-sapping guilt of even trying to rebuild without them.
The feel of catastrophe is as old as mankind. Yet, each time, it surprises us like the sharp pain of a stubbed toe. If we are to build something that will survive the mistakes and tragedies of our pasts – whether personal, communal or national – we must at least prepare to be unprepared for that surprise. In pretending otherwise, we risk shutting out those feelings and committing the insanity of trying to cram pieces that no longer fit into the same old – often-destructive – patterns.
When catastrophe happens, something will change – not only around us, but also within us. The world will feel strange, then and for a very long time after. While we’re going through it, even the way the clouds move will not seem right. We must understand this; we must embrace and go through this. If we do, we will eventually create a new pattern from the pieces of the old – changed, perhaps strange for a while before we settle in, but one in which, in time, even the way the clouds move feels right again.