The Uses of Disaster (

Posted on Friday, September 9, 2005. This essay on the relationship between disasters, authority, and our understanding of human nature went to press as Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The excerpt below is followed by a postscript, available only on the Web, that specifically addresses the disaster in New Orleans. Originally from a forthcoming issue of Harper’s Magazine, October 2005.

By Rebecca Solnit.

In his 1961 study, “Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies,” sociologist Charles Fritz asks an interesting question: “Why do large-scale disasters produce such mentally healthy conditions?” One of the answers is that a disaster shakes us loose of ordinary time. “In everyday life many human problems stem from people’s preoccupation with the past and the future, rather than the present,” Fritz wrote. “Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and the future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs.” This shift in awareness, he added, “speeds the process of decision-making” and “facilitates the acceptance of change.”

The state of mind Fritz describes resembles those sought in various spiritual traditions. It recalls Buddhism’s emphasis on being in the moment, nonattachment, and compassion for all beings, and the Christian monastic tradition’s emphasis on awareness of mortality and ephemerality. From this perspective, disaster can be understood as a crash course in consciousness. (more…)

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