Since the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck southeast Asia, Iâ€™ve been struggling to make meaning out of it. I guess, at the core, thatâ€™s what writers (and communicators, and human beings of all kinds) do: we make meaning.
Ultimately, meaning derives from context…
I just looked up context in Dictionary.com. Here are some of definitions listed there:
- â€?That which surrounds, and gives meaning to, something else.â€?
- â€?The part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.â€?
- â€?The circumstances in which an event occurs; a setting.â€?
We humans depend on context to understand the world and act in it. Itâ€™s how our minds work. Without context, we are truly adrift. Whenever something totally unfamiliar or unimaginable happens, we struggle to comprehend it, to create links from the familiar to the unfamiliar, to connect it to the world we once knew.
Looking at the southeast Asian disaster from half a world away, it still seems unreal. It has not touched the world I directly experience; yet, it has. My mind keeps getting drawn to it. I canâ€™t stop reading the news, looking at the pictures. I am trying to make meaning of it.
There are many levels of context, and of meaning.
I can understand the mechanics, the simplest answer to what happened and how. This is how our planet works. These are the forces unleashed by geology and physics, which can be expressed in a simple, almost abstract animation.
And yet I envision the water being sucked away from a sunny tropical beach, the confusion, the flapping stranded fish, and then the terror as the sea becomes a rushing wall of death. I imagine the bone-crushing weight, coldness, and speed. The world is reduced to a resounding â€œSLAM!â€?
This is my imagination filling in the gaps. This is what imagination does. We imagine to create experiential context where none can exist, to bridge the gap between the part of the world we experience directly and the part we canâ€™t due to displacement of distance or time. I am writing now to share that internal pseudo-experience, to add my bit of context to the collective human picture. That may not seem important, but itâ€™s what I have to offer.
Beyond that I have the news stories, the photos, the blog entries. This is the context in which I experience the aftermath. Itâ€™s indirect, but still crucial. However, itâ€™s piecemeal and remote. I do not shiver with shock, feel the splinters and rubble, swat at insects, inhale the stench of decomposition. I see pictures, and read and hear stories, from people who have those experiences. Meanwhile I sit in my comfortable Colorado home in winter, and sip tea, and check my e-mail again, and work. And check the news, over, and over.
And I feel adrift. Something about the scale of this disaster has loosened my moorings of security moreso than the Sept. 11 attacks, moreso even than when I flew home from London on Pan Am 103 the day after that same flight got bombed, killing one of my housemates.
The fragility of humans, of beings who are connected to me because we are alike, now looms in my foreground. I canâ€™t shake it, and I donâ€™t want to even though it chills me. My context has shifted to this: We all want to live. We all want peace and security. We all fear that other people can end our lives, shatter our peace and security. Yet the very planet which birthed us and sustains us can shift without malice, wiping out a vast swath of humanity.
Every person who died on those beaches valued life, and deserved to live, at least as much as I do. Every survivor now facing disease, hunger, thirst, poverty, and bereavement is connected to me because, in a capricious shift of context, I could be any of them.
We are fragile. We are dependent. We are interdependent. And we all die. Amazingly, our fragility and inherent connectedness is the essence of our strength as a species. When we act within the context of connectedness, rather than isolation, we become humanity — not mere individuals.
This is the context of being human. It is not tragic, it is merely what is. To be fully human, to experience your own humanity, is to stay aware of your connection to other people even people in far-off lands, living in circumstances and speaking languages you cannot comprehend. It is to respect and value their lives as well as your own. It is to act, at least occasionally, in ways that benefit humanity as a whole.
Right now, just about every web site and news outlet is telling you how to contribute money, food, blood, supplies, prayers, and other offerings to our fellow humans in southeast Asia. This is important, and I hope that anyone reading this article feels connected enough to respond constructively to this disaster.
My own request here is more personal.
Please let yourself, even for a moment, feel fully connected to humanity. Experience our fragility and strength, as a species and as individuals. Then, do whatever you can within the context of your life to aid humanity. Be good to the people in your life, help them flourish. Expand your sense of community and welcome new individuals into your direct experience.
Let this shifting of earth and ocean reframe your context. Let that new context guide your actions in whatever ways seem good and useful to you, both large and small. Donâ€™t close your mind, shield your eyes, and narrow your world. Let this tidal wave move you, too.
You are not powerless and meaningless. You have the power to create meaning for yourself and your world by consciously framing your context. The most powerful, beneficial, versatile context is connectedness.
Feeling connected is how we shift from feeling adrift to staying afloat. Reach out, grasp, and hold on. Support and be supported. Do what you can, in whatever situations life presents. Good actions rooted in connectedness accumulate to benefit all people.