We’re not made for constant crisis–and neither are our students

Today’s post is drawn from a lecture I share with my Sociology of Disaster students. I’m grateful for how they’ve contributed to my critical view of resilience over the years.

Humans are amazingly resilient. We can face hard, acute crises and find solutions quickly. We are great at bouncing back and even pretty good at “bouncing forward.” And when we don’t manage that right away, when we fall into depression, even this has benefits (which is not to dismiss the immense pain of depression).

In part, we’re resilient because we have significant “surge capacity“–the ability to bring forward skills we need to survive in a disaster. (As a personal example, my fastest ever run time was out of an alligator-nesting area I’d stumbled into while on a hike in Florida. I hadn’t run a mile in under 8 minutes since middle school, but I somehow ran 7 miles–far enough to not just get out of the nesting zone but to get safely to my car and drive home to collapse for a 4 hour nap–through the swamp that day, carrying a preschool child, in my fastest time ever.) But a disaster, while it may have deep roots and long-lasting consequences, is an acute problem, one limited in its time and scope. A car accident or an earthquake occur over just a few moments. A tornado can last a few hours (at least the waiting for it–the actual touch down can be quite short), a hurricane perhaps a few hours or a few days, a blizzard a little longer. Any of these can cause tremendous damage, including death, injury, and PTSD, but, even amid them, we can envision the end of them.

The pandemic is, by definition, different. It is long-lasting, and we don’t know what the end of it will look like. Despite proposed timelines by well-informed scientists, we can’t know what is ahead. A tornado doesn’t last forever. A blizzard eventually dumps all its snow. A virus is predictably unpredictable, able to mutate in lots of ways we know and perhaps some we’ve not yet discovered . In a disaster, we use all our resources to survive that moment, knowing that we’ll soon enough be able to replenish them. In a never-ending crisis, we don’t know how to dole out our energy. We might need a spurt of it to help care for a critically-ill loved one or to fight off an infection ourselves. And we need to keep some of it in store because a pandemic doesn’t prevent another kind of disaster. Just a few days after Arkansas State University closed in response to COVID, for example, the campus was hit by a tornado. Individual car accidents and house fires still happen. Political unrest happens. And, of course, extreme weather happens. Our boat is being swamped with disaster after disaster even as COVID has blown a large and unpluggable leak in it.

Human brains and bodies aren’t so great at managing this kind of constant stress. And, unfortunately, the systems that we might have relied on otherwise to help–extended family, neighborhood and community, and government–are either threatened especially by the coronavirus (elderly relatives), fracturing under political differences, or deliberately inept (I’m looking at you, Texas state government).

We love stories of resiliency and heroism in the face of disaster in American culture–in part because they divert our attention from the way that it’s community and solidarity that save people; these require life-long work and threaten the capitalism that’s killing us. The fact is, individuals typically don’t do well when facing extended crisis. When we’ve faced these kinds of problems in the past, we haven’t handled them particularly well. What has worked in the past is caring for the vulnerable–something that was so effective during earlier plagues that it was a force for the spread of Christianity. Unfortunately, caring for the ill, weak, and poor is not a cultural value for many of us, and we’ve virtually abandoned the idea that it’s a collective responsibility.

What has to change is our situation, not our individual attitudes. While individual behavior does matter (Wearing a mask is better than not wearing a mask.), it can’t replace wide-scale intervention for wide-scale problems. (A coordinated shut-down of non-essential activity and economic support, including parental leave, for households is better than mask-wearing.) But those are things we can’t, as individuals, control. Worse, those of us who need them most–the ones most at risk–are the least powerful and thus the least able to shape our public policy.

To think about this more, I highly recommend The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience by Kathleen Tierney. It’s one of those books that, even if you don’t agree with all the arguments, challenges you to think in new ways.

Above, Gustave Coubert’s Hind Driven Down in the Snow shows a deer, its pink tongue hanging out, fallen in the snow due to exhaustion. Five hounds are approaching it, along with a hunter on foot and two on horseback.

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