We are often told that disasters bring out the worst in people. That when we are scared we become focused on our own survival to the exclusion of other people. The idea is that, when push comes to shove, we will take care of our own (whatever that means) no matter what impact it has on other people.
The thing is though, that hasn’t been my experience. When I have been in places where the worst has happened, I have seen it bring out the best in people. I have seen people take care of their neighbors, and go out of their way to help people they had never met before, and in the course of everyday life, would never meet again.
In her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster” Rebecca Solnit affirms this experience. “What is this feeling that crops up during so many disasters?” Ms. Solnit asks. She describes it as “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,” worth studying because it provides “an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility.” Our response to disaster gives us nothing less than “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.”
Today is the day that we remember both the worst of what people can do together, and the very best. The people who perpetrated the attacks imagined a different reality, one that people across the world rejected. But the people who responded also helped us get a glimpse of a different world – one in which people run in to help. A friend who was a first responder on September 11th observed: “It was one of those days where if you could believe in hell you saw it, and also if you could believe in heaven you experienced that too.” I choose to remember the people who helped us see a better way. What about you?