Who We Are In A Crisis

how people act in disaster, survivor, true survivor behavior,

Versions of Survivor are watched all over the world. Forty-five countries have pitted contestants against the odds and shows are still filmed in Denmark, Croatia, Italy, Norway, Serbia, France, India, Israel, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and the U.S. These series drop people in inhospitable places with minimal resources and ask them to cope successfully with unexpected challenges. It’s called “reality” television, although people in the real world face harder challenges every day.

Survivor shows have to be carefully structured with authoritarian rules and imposed competition. Otherwise contestants might resort to a very natural state. Not Lord of the Flies levels of cruelty and exclusion. No, something far worse for ratings. Cooperation.

In our non-reality TV lives we don’t live as separate entities battling for limited resources like wanna-be stars on an island bristling with cameras. We humans are wired to live in interdependent networks of people based on mutual support and compassion. Ninety-nine percent of humanity’s time on earth took place while we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, a time when we did not make war against each other. Anthropologists tell us that our species never would have survived without structuring our lives around sharing food and resources. This responsive caring is basic to who we are.

But somehow, after years of schooling where collaboration is redefined as cheating and recreation where play is turned into supervised competition, we adopt the idea that people are essentially selfish. Popular culture feeds this concept by elevating what’s superficial and materialistic, the better to shape us into perpetual consumers. Worse, we seem to think that selfishness can easily erupt into brutally dangerous behavior when disaster strikes. According to a remarkable book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, the opposite is true.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. 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.”

Disaster is often compounded by those who believe that human nature is selfish and cruel. In many cases this is the drumbeat sounded by the media and acted on by authorities. An analysis of disasters shows that official efforts to deal with disaster tend to focus on this aspect, suppressing the efforts of ordinary people to help one another while increasing militaristic control. This deprives people of helping one another and compounds the crisis.

Solnit says that the enlivening purpose that truly comes to the fore as a result of disasters tells us something about ourselves. “Each of us enlarges the world by idealistic passion and engagement. Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most people’s lives. The tasks that arise in disaster often restore this meaning.”

No one wants their blessedly ordinary lives wiped away by something unimaginably horrible. But it’s good to know, as Solnit says, who we are in a crisis gives us a “glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”

who we are in a crisis, humanity at its best in crisis,

This article first published in Wired

12 thoughts on “Who We Are In A Crisis

  1. I have thought about this a lot. War has not always been a part of our lives. Cooperation has key to our survival. I have often wondered why so many people are opposed to a consensual relationship with their families – the very people they should be working with to ensure their survival (and the continuation of their genes).


  2. Thank you for that book recommendation – I’ll have to check that out! I do agree that communities seem to pull together remarkably well after a sudden catastrophe, but I am more worried about how we will all deal with a long, slow decline.

    As scarcity of oil and other natural resources becomes more apparent in the next 20 years, prices will go up so much that probably most of us will experience a significant decline in living standards (of course, “living standards” can be what we make of them). There is a faction of peak oil activists who believe that all hell will break loose when our regular supply chains fall apart. But there are more of us who hope to avoid all that by preparing in advance. There are a number of “Transition Communities” where I live in Northern California who are trying to get the word out, mobilize local agriculture/transportation/bartering systems, etc.

    I agree that it would be so nice if the media highlighted cooperation more than competition, but I guess competition/conflict makes a better story.


    • I think more and more people recognize that we’re in a crisis, a real one, despite the faux crises dreamed up by media marketing departments (war on Christmas, really?). They come to this in ways that feel personal (children with developmental challenges, health problems, unemployment, heavy student loans, PSTD after military service, and so on) but are affecting people everywhere. And as they look, they see patterns. My husband was out of work for three years before finding full time work, two of our parents died from complications of prescription drugs, and all around us in Ohio desperate dairy farmers, whose milk is worth less than it was 35 years ago, are selling off their land to be fracked. If we weren’t wide awake before, we’re more awake now.

      I’m beginning to see grassroots efforts that reach across the political spectrum. They have to do with self-reliance, with speaking out against corporate control and government bought off by big interests. The old institutions of politics, medicine, education become ever more rigid trying to hang on to some control but this rising consciousness can’t be stopped. These crises are like yeast and people rise, the thin hard crust of outdated ideas will crack.


  3. “A Paradise Built in Hell” is one of the best books I’ve ever read, one that has influenced me tremendously. I’m so glad to see you featuring it here. I was especially struck, while reading it, that compassion seems to crop up in anarchic ways and almost never in a top-down, controlling way–people have this amazing ability to self-organize, leap in where needed, and make important things happen, all for the sake of the greater good. I have a great deal of faith in this community spirit, these person-to-person interactions, and very little faith in Institutions (governments, corporations, schools, etc). Sometimes a crisis can be enough to jolt people out of their complacency and bring them back to their best selves, despite terrible loss. I worry a lot about the forces that keep people in a fog: the endless consumerism and competition; the stress that comes with those; the efforts to keep the stress at bay with addictions to food, drugs, the Internet, just about anything, really. The warped priorities of the current industrial culture are like a slow-mo train wreck, keeping people so frantic, or fuzzy-headed, that they can’t snap to attention and leap into action. We would all be better off, I think, if we could collectively realize that we are in the midst of a crisis, despite the efforts of officials to convince us otherwise, despite the unpleasantness of facing into it. If we can’t believe or accept that we’re already in a crisis, how can we rise to the occasion? I suppose nothing less than earthquakes, explosions, nuclear meltdowns, wildfires, droughts, floods, economic collapse, etc.- that is to say, dramatic, sudden, widespread, undeniable events- will garner enough attention.


    • You put this so well. So much good is in us, waiting for a catalyst to pull it forth. Sometimes that impetus is disaster. Yes, the fog of consumerism and competition are there, sadly effective. But I find hope when so many wise traditions tell us that it takes only a tiny percentage to wake up the larger populace. I did a paper back in college on the research done by meditators, showing that when a tiny portion of the population meditated that it affected the entire community, reducing crime rates and illness and all sorts of other negatives. Surely that’s true of awareness as well. When it happens things shift dramatically. Look at the shift in acceptance of gay rights in such a short time. And polls show that a huge majority uphold the sanctity of the environment over profits, although policy lags well behind. Anyway, I think Solnit’s book makes an important contribution to this discussion. It’s a profound work.


  4. Hi Laura, I posted today on a slightly different but related topic. I’d love to have your opinion about my dilemma, and that of your readers….it’s about how to live an authentic life whilst making/having friendships with people with possibly very different views to your own (especially if those people are part of a very small homeschooling community that I would love to be part of!) When should one stand alone, stand up for what one believes in and when should one try and swallow fundamental differences with others? Which way is the right way? Does it depend on the issue, how serious it is? But is it worth finding out if such issues exist or stick one’s head in the sand? http://homeschoolingmiddleeast.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/does-hanging-out-with-other-homeschooling-tribes-and-enjoying-it-make-me-a-coward-a-terrible-role-model-for-my-children-or-worse-morally-bankrupt-month-4-of-learning-at-home/


      • Thanks, Laura! That’s very, very thoughtful. BTW, I see that you’ve been receiving a lot of click-throughs from my blog although you may not realize it because my readers are a wonderfully international bunch, as I’m sure yours are 🙂 I think that’s a lovely aspect of blogging – I’m so pleased to have found yours and be able to get some people over to read you, since I’m a big fan!


  5. You are a marvelous gem of a being. Thank you Laura for feeling, writing and sharing. I hit a “hell” spot yesterday and have done so a few times in the past three years which have also been swarming with beauty. My passions feel abandoned (self determined work life for me, unschooling for my daughter) and I’m down to a place where I need, simply, space. Much less Internet, almost none at all, really… Chop wood, carry water. The light within me is so piercing that I know a volcano will erupt in this silence. But for now, I sit in the burning place. I do thank you for being and I know you are part of my community. (My blog is leaningintolight.com)

    With great Love,


    • “I know a volcano will erupt in this silence. But for now, I sit in the burning place.” You write beautifully about a state I know well. May this burning also illuminate you, my friend.

      I want to thank you for sharing your marvelous blog. I shared your post about your mail carrier this morning on FB.

      And I’ve never been called a “marvelous gem of a being!” It feels wonderful!


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