As so many have noted, a crisis often brings out the best in us. I am glad that anything brings out our best. Many of us, I suspect most of us, want to be good, to do good in the world. But as the novel coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, I have again been wondering why we seem to need a crisis to be what many of us wish we were all the time.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Bill Taylor wrote: “During the course of her research, [Rebecca] Solnit analyzed the work of Charles E. Fritz, a giant of modern disaster studies, a field that emerged after World War II, and she was amazed by his views. Fritz’s most “radical premise,” she explained, “is that everyday life is already a disaster of sorts, one from which actual disaster liberates us,” since it gives each of us the chance to express the best in ourselves. The “merging of individual and societal needs” during a disaster, Fritz argued, “provides a feeling of belonging and a sense of unity rarely achieved under normal circumstances.”” [Bill Taylor, “How Bad Times Bring Out the Best in People”, Harvard Business Review, 03/20/2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/how-bad-times-bring-out-the-best-in-people.] That was a perspective I had not heard before as to why virtue comes to the fore in crises. It makes sense to me and I like the idea of being liberated to be our best.
“The word crisis derives from the Greek verb “krino”, meaning “I judge and choose”. This concept suggests a choice or moment in which we have to face different perspectives and opportunities (Omnis, 1900).” [“Why Crisis Can Bring Out the Best in Us”, 7/31/2018, https://exploringyourmind.com/why-crises-can-bring-out-the-best-in-us/.] It seems that an actual disaster can strip away the unimportant and give us clarity. The gem within us that is our center, our true self, our soul, is too encrusted and obscured most of the time by things that only seem important until our lives are threatened in some fundamental way.
Maybe we would not call our everyday lives “a disaster of sorts already”. But even the most fortunate among us have ordinary anxieties, conflicts, difficulties, dissatisfactions, and disappointments. Maybe what brings out our best is as simple as displacing ordinary troubles with extraordinary ones. Perhaps that is what we need to see clearly what is really at stake and what calls forth our sense of true belonging and unity with our fellow Earth-dwellers.
Rutger Bregman cited several examples of the best of us in crisis that strengthen my faith in us, in humanity, in our ability to survive this crisis and flourish again, as we have many times before. He wrote, “Yes, panic can happen, and some people may start hoarding. But a British social psychologist notes that “we’re much more likely to see prosocial behaviors across multiple types of disasters and extreme events”. That truth echoes back across the ages. According to an eyewitness account, when the Titanic went down, there was “no indication of panic or hysteria; no cries of fear, and no running to and fro.”
“When the Twin Towers burned on September 11, 2001, thousands of people patiently trudged down all those flights of stairs. And people would actually [say]: ‘No, no, you first’,” one of the survivors reminisced later. “I couldn’t believe it, that at this point people would actually say, ‘No, no, please take my place.’ It was uncanny.’”
“Millions of Chinese people are encouraging each other to stand strong, using the expression “jiayou” (“don’t give up”). . . . Children in Italy are writing “andrà tutto bene” (“everything will be all right”) on streets and walls, while countless neighbors are helping each other. . . Last week, an Italian journalist told the Guardian about what he had witnessed with his own eyes: “After a moment of panic in the population, there is now a new solidarity. In my community the drugstores bring groceries to people’s homes, and there is a group of volunteers that visit houses of people over 65.” . . . The words “andrà tutto bene” – everything will be all right – were first used by a few mothers from the province of Puglia, who posted the slogan on Facebook. From there, it spread across the country, going viral almost as fast as the pandemic. . . .” [Rutger Bregman, “Disasters and crises bring out the best in us”, 3/20/2020, https://ideas.ted.com/disasters-and-crises-bring-out-the-best-in-us/.]
I suppose we could all wish that we were at our best all the time, so that it did not take a crisis to renew our faith in humanity. But let’s be grateful that if ordinary life does not inspire consistent greatness in us, at least we can give our best at the worst of times.