We’re now several days into the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Millions are still without power. Debris is ubiquitous. The storm was record breaking.
I’ve logged more than 30 years in Florida, ridden out more than a dozen hurricanes, and I’ve never seen anything like it. For the first time ever, I boarded up our home, and we prepped to hunker down in a 6’ by 6’ closet with our newborn and our dog. Howling wind. Sideways rain. Falling trees. Tornado warnings.
We live in a neighborhood where half of the people come home and never interact with their neighbors. The most amazing thing happened Sunday morning when the storm died down—everyone came outside. It was part disaster tourism, part curiosity, and part “Hey, you guys okay?”
By my count, roughly two-thirds of the neighborhood was outside, and there was a lot of conversation. We seized this small window of time to meet numerous “new” neighbors and have several substantive conversations. We talked about adoption with some neighbors considering it. We had fireside s’mores with discussions on faith and science. We got to hear people’s stories and share our own.
Sunday night we saw the stars vividly as a beautiful, power-outage darkness descended.
Barriers to Neighborliness
Sometimes God gives us crises that take away our diversions and make us focus on what’s really important. These crises bless us with the gift of our bare human condition. Immediately after Irma, all that mattered to my community was that everyone was safe. This evolved to concerns about how much damage was incurred. This evolved to “When will we get power back?”
After my experience, I’m increasingly convinced that two of the biggest barriers to neighborly living are air conditioning and the internet. When stripped of these two luxuries, people were forced to interact as embodied persons. The multitude of distractions available on the internet were simply gone.
Blaise Pascal wrote roughly 350 years ago:
What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. . . . That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such fearful punishment.
Places with air conditioning and wifi provide the perfect environment for the distracted and diverted life, where you don’t need to worry too much about the actual humans around you. There’s always something to do; always something new to be entertained by. But when the power goes out, you’re forced to face your own idols—comfort, control, power, escape.
Gifts of Community
That’s an uncomfortable process, but it isn’t purely negative. You’re forced to face your idols, but you’re also forced to face the positive aspects of your neighbors. When my entire neighborhood was thrust out of our air conditioning, we discovered the gifts of community—good conversation, sharing stories, knowing that people are concerned for our welfare, s’mores. It was beautiful.
But the gravitational pull of the internet—of privatized diversion and distraction—is strong. Even though we can come outside and interact with our neighbors anytime we want, it took an unprecedented natural disaster to get us outside this time. While the gifts of community are many, they will never be as easy to come by as the ostensible gifts of diversion.
My prayer is that our neighbors won’t recede back into their individualized bubbles of diversion and that we can interact without the prompting of record-breaking storm. It won’t be easy, but hopefully this small taste of something better will inspire us.