Rebecca Solnit shares how media practitioners can fall together and break the status quo
After the San Francisco earthquake, 1906. Public domain image.
Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian and activist who relishes in the unknown fabric of what makes us human. Her writings on human connection, solitude, the environment and loss have been widely published. Last month Solnit was interviewed by Krista Tippett for the “On Being” podcast. In it, Solnit speaks about her childhood, trauma and loss in a conversation that focuses on how people react to traumatic events.
“She searches for the hidden, transformative histories inside events we chronicle merely as disasters, in places like post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans,” Tippett writes about Solnit. “Solnit writes that, so often, ‘when all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.’”
Their conversation begins with a reflection on Solnit’s early life. When asked about her childhood, Solnit responds: “I had an inside out childhood because every place was safe but home.” Becoming an avid reader at an early age, Solnit found refuge in books she read at her local public library. Finding solace in storytelling led Solnit to become curious about human interactions and the world around her.
In her books “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster” and “Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities,” Solnit writes about the aftermath of disaster and how communities react to trauma in unexpected and inspiring ways.
Mainstream media, including Hollywood blockbusters, are quick to show post-disaster humans as fragile and terrified by sensationalizing acts of violence such as looting and rioting.
This “human nature narrative,” as Solnit calls it, has been firmly engraved into our thought process and protocol for how to manage crisis. After Hurricane Katrina, “the city was shut off and turned into a prison city, where the police were shooting black people in the back, where people were not allowed to evacuate … ” Solnit says.
Yet, Solnit has observed a very different type of reaction to trauma after events like Katrina. She has witnessed a spiritual awakening within communities, a sense of connection and a unity that comes from experiencing trauma collectively.
This unity, however, is often short lived. After this type of awakening, Solnit asks, “how do we stay awake?”
Taking this question a few steps further, Solnit asks, “How can we get there without going through a disaster? … Why has everything we’ve ever been told about human nature misled us about what happens in this moment? … What if we can actually be better people in a better world?”
Disaster throws people into the present and brings about a deep sense of connection, Solnit says. Courage, compassion and generosity bloom in the desolate wake of disaster. Hope emerges here.
In “A Paradise Built in Hell” Solnit writes about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. “In disaster there is a falling together that is not chronicled.” Dorothy Day, a key figure in the book, is used as an example of how people can learn from trauma.
After experiencing the quake as a child, Day went on to devote her life to service and to creating long term changes in the social service systems for the hungry and poor.
Solnit embraces hope for its sense of immediacy and uncertainty. She recalls turns of events — including our support for global warming research, same-sex marriage and human rights efforts — as signs of hope and massive shifts in perspective.
Solnit’s writing connects our ability to think and change with our ability to hope. In “Hope in the Dark” Solnit writes:
“There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom and of justice — and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of… We need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.”
It is often the aftermath of natural disasters that causes us to fall together and experience a unified hope. As Day noted after witnessing disaster, “people knew how to take care of each other all along.”
Yet, we fall back on the “human nature narrative” we’ve grown accustomed to, the narrative that is amplified by media. Post Katrina, “people were not victims of a hurricane, they were victims of vicious stories, of media failures … ” Solnit says in the interview. While stories of racial disputes, desperation and violence were widely covered, the tremendous waves of altruism and stories of extraordinary people helping others did not receive the same kind of media attention. These are the “indirect consequences” that Solnit finds interesting to trace as a storyteller.
Solnit’s interview offers many insights for media practitioners pursuing the Restorative Narrative genre. Many of the questions Solnit reflects on during her conversation with Tippett are similar to the types of questions journalists ask when approaching a story through a restorative lens.
Solnit encourages media practitioners to search for stories on the edges of events, in the unreachable pockets of forgotten communities, on the frontline of humanitarian efforts. Journalists play a crucial role in the stories that are told and shared, and, as Solnit points out, it’s sometimes necessary to break the status quo. Moving beyond stories that focus solely on trauma and despair may be the first step toward sustaining our sense of unity and telling untold stories of hope.
Related: Rebecca Solnit & Carrie Schneider share thoughts on art, human connection & reading during recent community conversation | 11 guiding questions for media practitioners pursuing Restorative Narratives