Something — maybe a bird bigger than a crow, but white — was perched on a fence post not more than twenty metres ahead. Fascinated by its uncanny beauty, I moved closer. The bird sat strangely still even while I inched ahead, keeping my eyes fixed on it. Then, as suddenly as it had captured my attention, the bird was gone. There was no explosion of wings, however. Instead, my perception was changed; I saw, not the bird I imagined, but the thing that was there. What that thing was — maybe something my dad had nailed to the top of the fence post — I have long forgotten. What I remember, after almost sixty years, is a compelling vision of a white bird that was not there. Even mistaken perceptions have staying power.
Perceptions have power to shape our understanding in big matters as well as small. Take, for example, a perception that large-scale disasters reveal the worst in people. In the panic that accompanies fires or floods, we tend to think that people will look after themselves first. Even more, when chaos overwhelms public health and safety, we tend to fear that people will seize the opportunity to prey on the defenceless. The novelist William Golding took this even further. In Lord of the Flies he showed how a group of boys marooned on an island descended into savage behaviours as soon as the internal constraints supported by civilization began to fray. In this perception, the civility we normally extend to each other is no more than a convenient set of arbitrary conventions. Natural disasters disrupt these restraints and reveal people for what they are.
This dark view produces compelling stories, but is its perception of human nature satisfactory? Mr. Rogers comforted children disturbed by traumatic events by advising them to “look for the helpers.” That spoke of his confidence that, after any traumatic event, helpers will be there. In fact, as Rebecca Solnit explained in A Paradise Built in Hell, helpers will show up because the victims of large-scale disasters will help each other. One of the outcomes of large-scale disasters, according to Solnit, is the renewed awareness of community and common purpose that arises as victims and volunteers work together to make things better. Many Albertans know this first-hand. Whether it be in fires in Slave Lake and Fort McMurray or the floods in Calgary and surrounding areas, people want to help each other. Dark perceptions of human nature may have staying power; however, if large-scale disasters reveal people for what they are, then most people are kind, generous, and care for others.
Should we be surprised that kindness, generosity, care for others, community-mindedness, and purpose — the human qualities that thrive in large-scale disasters — are also factors that protect communities during a pandemic? Every now and then, events take a turn that disrupt our settled ways of seeing things, realigning our perceptions and helping us develop new understandings. The pandemic may be one of those disruptive events, revising and renewing our ordinary perceptions of many things, including what communities need to be healthy and strong.
The pandemic will not be with us forever, but we can currently see that communities do best when they practice kindness, generosity, and care for others. Extreme conditions highlight things that pass almost unnoticed in ordinary times. New perceptions can recede. What vision for the future do we want to build as the pandemic conditions pass? Will our new perceptions last to help us find a better vision?
Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator. His career spanned every level from elementary school to university level teacher preparation.