Hurricanes and Hope
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
September 16, 2008 - Beyond overwhelming grief in the presence of obvious destruction and devastation, “natural” tragedies invariably solicit a full range of human emotion. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s fury, many stranded residents of New Orleans experienced anger.
Dr. Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga, offered some insightful analysis on this particular response in a November 2005 essay published in Touchstone . McClay wrote: “We seem increasingly to assume that everything untoward happening in the world can and should ultimately be attributed to the malfeasance of some human being or human agency. If most educated Americans now find ridiculous the idea of supernatural intervention, they find it equally difficult to accept the possibility that there can be any inherent limits on human agency. Nothing, so to speak, is ever reliably left to chance.” As a consequence of this outlook on life, McClay observes that in the wake of disasters like Katrina, “Someone Is To Blame”.
Compared with post-Katrina levels of frustration, levels of public outrage in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike seem almost non-existent. Residents of the Texas coast were more or less compliant with evacuation orders, and most now seem resigned to the realities of rebuilding in the midst of the day-to-day struggle to carve out a life in desperately inhospitable conditions. A handful of resilient Texans shook their fists at the winds of fate – staying put in their communities as the storm came ashore.
Such resolve (foolishness?) led Bret Johnston to speculate about hurricanes and human nature in a recent audio-essay on NPR. Johnston’s reflections are tragically comforting. Johnston writes: “It's not stupidity or insanity or even pride that keeps most people in their homes during a storm: It's hope.
You hope the life you've built can sustain what's bearing down on it; hope that if a window cracks or a leak opens up, you'll be there in time to fix it; hope that if someone calls for help, you'll be close enough to offer what they need. Mostly, though, you hope you'll get lucky, hope that when those who fled ask about the storm, you can think about raising a cold one with your friends and dancing with your wife and watching your son play in the rain. You hope you can smile and say, ‘Oh it wasn't that bad. It wasn't that bad at all. Nothing more than a little wind’.”
The language of hope comforts. And Johnston writes about it with an eloquence that’s captivating. But hope misplaced is a tragedy – on a magnitude of the devastation that follows a hurricane.
The hope of which Johnston writes is a hope ultimately placed in humanity – a hope in ourselves (and perhaps fate), so to speak. Yet, as many citizens of New Orleans no doubt felt immediately after Katrina, hope in fellow human beings is hope misplaced. That dashed hopes would turn to anger is, as McClay points out, an indication of our presumption to be gods – in an otherwise godless cosmos.
Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” The only hope that “does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5) is one that humbly recognizes our ultimate lack of mastery over nature and ourselves in acknowledging the Master of both.