Hurricane Sandy and Tribalism: How Crisis Impacts Our Sense of Humanity

Hurricane Sandy and Two Symbols

The tragedy this week unfolding on the Eastern seaboard of our country has been heart-rending. Not only the property destruction but the human devastation is mindblowing (79 deaths so far, and an estimated $50 billion of cost).  Clearly this has been a storm of epic proportions.

In the midst of this tragedy, there has also been a shining light–a very bright light, my opinion.  Watching the news yesterday and seeing New Jersey Governor Christy and President Obama working so closely together, praising and thanking each other for significant leadership in providing meaningful assistance on multiple levels, was heartwarming.

Here are two powerful symbols of contrast in this country–political opponents in every way–idealogues on opposite poles–both having criticized the other during the political campaigns–Gov. Christy being one of the outspoken surrocates for Mitt Romney, and President Obama running against Romney on almost everything.  And yet, in spite of these profound differences that have manifested at times in vitriolic political spewing, these two men have come together, worked together, embraced a similar vision and goal, and untiringly are working to stem the chaos and bring restoration and peace to that region.  And deeply affirming each other in the process.

The tandem bicycle pedaled by teams of two generated enough to power more than a dozen phones. (Amal Chen/The Epoch Times)

And then to hear the stories of neighbors and community people immediately reaching out to each other, working hard to help save and restore lives–cleaning up the mess from flooding and wind damage, giving food and blankets and clothing, inviting people into their homes for shelter and safety.  And thousands across the country have been donating money and blood to the Red Cross.  No one goes through a “What Do We Agree On” checklist to decide whether or not they should help these people–if there are too many disagreements then no help can be given.  That would be ridiculous!  We’d actually label that “inhumane.”  [Note:  It’s tragic that so many congregations use this approach when deciding to accept or include some people, like gays, into their churches.  They would never do this during a natural disaster.  But when a crisis of spirituality and faith occurs, they exclude rather than include based on their check list.  What a lesson here!]

There’s something about crisis that has the potential of bringing people, even political foes, together.  People are willing to move beyond their deep and profound differences for the sake of a common need.  It’s powerful to witness, isn’t it.

The Potential of Crisis

All of this has me thinking, why is it that crisis brings people together so often but then when the crisis is over everyone goes back to allowing their differences to create deep, unbridgeable chasms between them?  During crisis we can somehow look at the Other differently than after the crisis?  We see more in common than different during than after?  The fact that crisis brings people together shows that it is humanly possible to work and live together even in the midst of deep differences and disagreements.

What allows this to happen?  Here’s one of the reasons.  Crisis causes a re-recognition of common humanity.  We suddenly realize that we’re all connected in the most basic, fundamental way:  we are human beings living on one planet facing similar challenges, and so we sense a renewed responsibility for each other.  We are compelled to put our differences beneath our desire reach out to one another in restorative ways.

Typical tribalism shifts during these crisis times.  Instead of focusing first and foremost on our smaller, more immediate tribe (like our nationalism, our political affiliation, our religious belief, our local neighborhood and community, our biological family, and so forth), we are brought to the awareness that our first and most significant tribal affiliation is actually humanity–we are human beings living on the same planet with the responsibility of caring for each other.  We become much more global in these moments.  We prioritize our tribalism more globally.

And what is the result?  People come together, pull together, work together, in order to bring restoration, transformation, and a new normal into their damaged world.  Do they throw out their disagreements and start believing everything similarly?  No.  Do they deny their differences?  No.  But their common humanity takes precedence.  And so they serve each other no matter the odds and difficulties.  And the sense of community that is established is transformational.

A Parallel to Stages of Faith

On a spiritual level, this parallels the stages of faith, the process people go through in spiritual development and how they manifest their spirituality in different stages.  Of the four stages, stage two is the formal, institutional, fundamental worldview.  This is where most people tend to live.  There is a need for structure, certainty, organization–all of this serves to delineate faith and life, to carve out boundaries to help us understand the complexities; all of which help to bring a sense of security to the chaos of life.  So in stage two there is an emphasis on what separates us–our disagreements and differences, a tendency toward an “us” versus “them,” an inside and an outside.  This is how we develop a certain basic spiritual identity.

So stage two people can become very threatened by those who believe differently.  And the fundamentalist outcome of this stage is to actually fight against those who are different in order to minimize the insecurity of identity we might be feeling.

Stage four faith is known as the mystical, communal worldview.  Dr. Scott Peck, in his book The Different Drum, describes it this way:  “This awareness leads to a deeper appreciation of the whole, the ability to love and embrace a world community by transcending individual culture and religion and other dividing lines that tend to separate people.  There’s a growing appreciation for the connectedness of all humanity with each other and with God and the awareness that God communicates to all people in equally unique and special ways that are communicated by means of symbols and metaphors and then lived out in meaningful practices and rituals.”

So it’s fascinating to me, as I watch events like Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, how people respond to crisis.  On a spiritual level, people seem to move very quickly from a stage two kind of faith to a stage four faith.  In fact, experts tell us that we typically can only move from one spiritual stage to another as a result of crisis.  Without crisis to shake up our little worlds, we tend to be too comfortable to move forward.  Crisis suddenly upsets our spiritual equilibrium.  It often causes us to question our fundamental beliefs.  During and after crisis, we discover that the traditional spiritual answers seem too cliche and non-meaningful (like “God will protect you if you just believe in Him,” or “This must be God’s will,” or “God is punishing the East because of gays,” etc.–the point is that for people going through this crisis, those answers hold no meaning anymore, even those who held those beliefs cannot explain their current tragedies adequately through those cliche lens).  They don’t seem to work anymore.

That whole series of thoughts and questions is actually a definition of stage three faith.  Says Dr. Peck:  “[These people] have gotten to a stage where the clearly defined paradigms and answers to questions given in stage two no longer satisfy and raise more doubts than can be satisfactorily answered.  They’re beginning to see that life is not as black and white as stage two thinks it is.  So they embark on a journey of dispensing with the orthodox, deconstructing previous beliefs, weighing everything by the scientific method, in order to search for ‘truth’ wherever it might lead.”

So crisis has the ability to laser focus our lives quickly onto that which is most important.  And as I have seen in this week’s tragedy, people almost automatically shift their worldview away from small tribalism to global connection.  And they can live and act this way in deeply satisfying ways to help mitigate the painful results of such tragedies.  And the result is that people are profoundly blessed and saved and empowered to keep on living and surviving and moving toward thriving again.

From t-ribalism to T-ribalism

I think this reality is hugely informative to us.  This week we’ve been reminded how important it is to live in a stage four kind of worldview (which I think is a deeply spiritual issue).  We’ve been shown how quickly we can get there.  Crisis motivates us and empowers us to almost immediately go global in our life lens.  We lay aside our more local tribalisms (the profound differences and disagreements between our politics, religion, family, community, even nationalisms) in order to step into our global tribe–the lens that reminds us we are first and foremost a part of one human family, all connected to each other, children of God no matter who we are.

We don’t deny all our differences.  We don’t compromise our beliefs.  We don’t forget our smaller tribal identities.  Those are all still a part of each of us.  But we subsume them to a higher identity, a wider connection, a more fundamental relationship that is truly divine:  we are all children of God, family, intimately and eternally connected, heart to heart, body to body, soul to soul.  We have a divine responsibility to honor these connections to each other whenever and wherever we are.  We are called by God to be faithful stewards of our global human relationship.

This week our country has given evidence of this spiritual reality.  Thank you Gov. Christy and President Obama for being positive symbols of a faith that embraces our one human tribe.  Now may the rest of us manifest this stage of spiritual faith in our every day lives, within the circles we move and live–our congregations, temples, mosques, businesses, families, organizations.  Imagine what life could be like if we all pulled together (even in the midst of our disagreements and differences) and truly acted as one human family under God, brothers and sisters forever.