Last week started with the a solar eclipse. It ended with a devastating hurricane that was historic even by hurricane standards. It’s easy to see why primitive societies looked for messages from the divine in disruptions of nature.
Today, we will leave it to sources more in touch with metaphysics to determine whether any such messages are intended from these awesome natural displays and, if so, precisely what they are. But we do have an important role to play in telling the human stories that emerge from the events.
One of the most striking of these stories is the power of nature to put even the most deeply held political and social arguments into perspective. No one in those boats motoring up to Houston rooftops is asking whether the people they are carrying to safety are Confederate sympathizers or liberal snowflakes or abortion activists or gun control advocates or Democrats or Republicans or even documented or undocumented immigrants. They’re just reaching out to help save the lives of fellow human beings.
There will be time enough for all that other stuff later, time enough to divide up into sides and counter-sides. But for now, when thousands of people must worry about whether they will have a place to sleep tonight or what they will eat and what they will return to when the floodwaters recede, there is time only to concentrate on survival. Everyone’s survival.
That’s not to say people haven’t found ways to insert politics and division into the storm narrative. Some have clucked their tongues at the first lady’s choice of footwear, cast aspersions on a TV minister’s willingness or unwillingness to provide a shelter for suffering Houstonians, even pontificated on how the storm will affect President Trump’s future. But most of these types of debates are happening far away from the scene of the crisis. There, the debate over police violence is put on hold, and first responders are colorblind heroes. There, the question of whether the Russians influenced the 2016 presidential election will just have to wait. There, even those who scorn the mainstream media are looking to newspapers and traditional broadcast news outlets as sources of reliable information, presented by dedicated journalists, many of whom are working around the clock to provide critical up-to-the-minute reporting.
Some skeptics worry that media melodrama desensitizes the public to nature’s real magnitude for disaster and fascination. In the past weeks, we’ve seen how a solar eclipse and a historic storm can transcend hype — and at the same time provide important insights into our basic humanity.
Whether the deity is using displays of awesome wonder to try to tell us something is a question best left to each of us and our own spiritual world view. But if you contend that, whatever their source, these events show we have the capacity to be better people than our politics often show us to be — and therefore ought to use it more often — you’ll get no argument from me.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.