Some say that a great storm (the "year without a summer") was the impetus for Mary Shelley's book Frankenstein. Out of the long, dark days came a work of creative genius sometimes credited as the first work of science fiction.
It appears that long, dark days are upon us.
I'm staring out from a 5th floor wall of windows as Hurricane Sandy tumbles into Washington, D.C. Trees are bending in the darkening sky and there's a howling sound outside. I managed to get to the grocery store this morning, and even stop by my local coffeeshop - despite the fact that it's raining in my elevator. D.C. has become relatively weather resilient in recent times: Snowmageddon, nasty storms that left the region without power for weeks, and even an earthquake that put the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument out of commission. I realize that the worst is yet to come, and that the storm is nothing to laugh at, but I must admit: a part of me is happy it's arrived.
I'm lucky to have a friend visiting from Denmark, another positive psychology expert who works in media. So as we're hearing the reports of imminent devastation, we 're filtering the stories through a few lenses and are experiencing the event with, if not rose-colored glasses, at least a lens of what's right with the situation at hand. We see a few positive elements at work:
Resilience -- Boarded up windows proclaim, "We're ready for you, Sandy," with crossed out names like Wilma and Katrina still visible underneath. Companies issue texted alerts to employees. Work crews prepare for days of repair, and shop owners wait until the last moment to close up. Elected officials urge people to take precaution. There's a sense that we're ready for whatever lies ahead, and that we can get through it.
Community Building -- I've met co-workers for the first time during fire drills, and I've met neighbors during storms. When we all have to prepare together, to protect the shared assets that are our homes and neighborhoods, we come together by virtue of our common interests. That coffeeshop down the street was more packed than I've ever seen it, despite intermittent Internet access and one lone barista. People are flocking together, talking with strangers (extreme weather makes for an easy ice-breaker) and making new connections they'll keep after the storm has passed.
Pro-social Motivation -- This morning my brother (who lives in an apartment two floors up) called to invite me and my houseguest to a homemade breakfast. While I wish this were a normal occurrence, it's not. But caretaking comes naturally in troubling times. In doing what we each can, we feel valued and connected. Whether it's helping a neighbor carry sandbags or offering to make a meal, unplanned events can make people want to reach out and help.
Gratitude & Awe -- Deadly storms have a way of putting things in perspective. When you reflect on those who are homeless, alone, or in harm's way, such as those who've been evacuated from the coastlines -- you become grateful for things you normally take for granted. Tweets on #ThankYouSandy express this sentiment. Contrasting the mayhem outside with the warmth and safety indoors makes your couch and Netflix queue that much more enjoyable. Storms also encourage appreciation of the power and beauty of nature. After her morning run, my guest described the way the leaves were "glowing in the rain." Watching news coverage of surges of water pounding against the seawalls reminds us of the respect due to Mother Nature.
Savoring & Appreciation of Time -- These few days are a moment set outside of the normal parameters of time. Instead of being at work or school, we're able to turn our attention to people or projects that have been neglected or not given priority. My neighbor was hard at work on a collage this morning, while another friend is out shooting footage of the storm. Expressing our creativity on borrowed time feels like we're cheating the system. Savoring the limited food in our homes and the rare company of friends and neighbors can give us a greater appreciation for the richness of our lives.
Love -- I got a message this morning from a former intern I haven't spoken to in over a year, wanting to be sure I was safe. In times of danger, we reach out to family and friends to make sure they're OK, and turn our thoughts to who might need assistance, or what we can do to aid cleanup efforts. We have an excuse to express our feelings ("just in case...") and let the important things in life take center stage.
Times like these have the potential to bring out the best in us. Let's not forget we're descended from the fittest of the fittest -- and that "fitness" is not just physical but also psychological and emotional. Rather than seeing this storm as a catastrophe, perhaps we can take a page from Shelley's book and let Sandy be greater than the sum of her parts.