Mind Matters — Goodnight, Irene

Just because you’re eating ice cream in the sunshine doesn’t mean the hurricane didn’t wreak its wrath. And just because a person sits outside and looks homeless yet holding a cell phone should not be judged negatively (think of it, if he’s lucky, perhaps he keeps it charged in the car, that has become his sole possession and abode).

It is easy to judge others quickly from a self-centered solipsism. Solipsism, say the philosophers, is the belief that “I am the center of my personal universe.”

Driving home from a Red Cross shelter where I volunteered in response to Hurricane Irene’s flooding, I pondered these things. Here, I leave a shelter where people have been displaced due to flooding to find, in the Sunday twilight, people strolling the sidewalks of West Chester.

Goodnight, Irene! Perhaps some were out to enjoy the clean feel of the air after all the wind and rain; perhaps some were glad to leave houses that had lost power to seek a restaurant or a movie to bide their time.

There is a painting, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (a Flemish artist of the 1500’s), called The Fall of Icarus. Here it is that Icarus is a wee figure in the corner, falling from the sky into the sea. Meanwhile, what is most notable is the large figure of a farmer plowing his field. Life goes on, despite the dramas and the traumas occurring. My drive home was sort of like the painting. On one road, I see the everyday activity of people shopping, dining out, walking, jogging. On the next road, all is dark, no power, then take a turn—ah, this road is closed, and no wonder: the blackness shines as though it were a placid lake: the water high enough to hide road to meadow to meet the Brandywine.

So many different worlds all at once and if I am solipsistically in one world, I may forget the reality of the other. There are many realities hidden to us.

Working at the shelter, I discovered several people who had been living out of their cars. The flooding and the wind drove them inward. Telling this to another, I discover more: that this person found that a full time employee of her institution had been living out of her car with her children. The employee disclosed her secret when she decided to move from the area.

These stories make the woman I witnessed in China (in 2007), standing in front of her “house” (basically a tiny storage unit with a rollup corrugated door) look positively wealthy.

We quickly judge others for why they are where they are. We project that the other is less than we are simply because they have less. This is false. The converse is also untrue: those who have more are not better than we are either.

I don’t think it is off-point to mention that while some of us have weathered the storm better than others in our own locality, we also need not minimize the power of this storm in general. Even though it took an unusual path, sparing coastlines, Irene walloped Vermont. Surely the people of Vermont are not saying that this hurricane’s impact was hyped. Again, the solipsism—“I’m okay so therefore it can’t be that bad.” Another word for solipsism may be denial of a reality larger than oneself.

Reading about the horrendous devastation in Vermont, I came across a quote from George Schenk, the owner of the American Flatbread Company whose famous pizzeria and farm inn were destroyed. After seven feet of water swept through his buildings, he noted the volunteers that came to help. Schenk said, “It’s really been an exceptional outpouring of support and it kind of humbles you. … It reminds us all, we don’t live alone, as much as we might think about living in isolation.”

No solipsism there—and that is our hope!

The story associated with Schenk’s quote can be found at VTDigger.org, “Mad River Valley Bears Brunt of Irene Damage in Central Vermont,” by Sylvia Fagan, 8/30/2011.