Back in the relatively uneventful era of the early 2010s, my family and I enjoyed a National Geographic series called “Doomsday Preppers.” The fascinating people featured in the show were preparing for the apocalypse, or something close to it. We would sit in front of the TV and laugh at those who were convinced that a pandemic, wipeout of the electrical grid, severe climate change, solar flare, or political unrest would lead to an apocalyptic event in the near future. We looked on in entertainment as they hatched their apocalypse strategy: stockpiling food, weapons, and generators. Perhaps, in the midst of a pandemic, political unrest, and recent state-wide weather related power failures in Texas, they are having the last laugh.
I live in a suburb of Dallas with four close friends. We do not have the resources as recent college grads to be doomsday preppers, so last week, when we were snowed in with little food and no electricity or heat, I could not help but think that someone was faring far better than we were because they were more prepared. As I watched my roommate chop up the wood she found out in the snow and prepare dinner over our fireplace, I chuckled at her pioneer spirit. She has now vowed to become more self sufficient in preparation for future crisis situations.
Surprisingly, I was able to enjoy this novel experience to an extent. I grew up in Phoenix and have lived in Dallas the past four years–I have never in my entire life experienced that much snow. The absence of electricity meant we were cold and hungry, but we also had to be resourceful and resilient. We found moments of joy: we huddled around our fireplace, laughed at our predicament, and played chess by candlelight. I read more, prayed more, and spent more quality time with my roommates. It felt extremely appropriate that this time came immediately before the beginning of the Lenten season.
When power (and our wifi) returned, I was able to access the outside world via social media and was shocked to find Texas in all of the national headlines. Unsurprisingly, this bizarre winter storm and the state’s lack of preparedness had become an extremely politicized issue. Fox News blamed the Green New Deal and frozen windmills, Democrats blamed it on Texas being a red state, my leftist friends blamed capitalism, my friends on the right blamed socialism, Trump supporters blamed Biden, and I’m sure somewhere, someone was blaming Trump.
I’m not an expert in these matters, and I don’t intend to offer my own interpretation on how a snow storm escalated to a state-wide emergency disaster. Instead, I want to reflect on how we react to crises.
Man is a political animal, and in my experience, there are two categories of reactions–our personal reaction and our political reaction. These two categories apply to any crisis, and the two reactions influence one another. Our personal reaction reflects how we respond to the crisis, whether that be with frustration, anger, determination, or hopelessness. The personal reaction is also likely to influence our political reaction, which affects who we blame and what we believe is the solution.
COVID, and the varied responses to the global crisis, provides a relatable example for different models of reaction. Whose fault is the pandemic? Whose fault was the lack of preparedness? Is the solution a two week lockdown, wearing masks and social distancing, or building herd immunity? It is perfectly natural and healthy to have strong emotional reactions to such events. Who hasn’t felt a degree of frustration or hopelessness in the past year? What’s important is how we allow these personal reactions to impact our political ones.
Those who allow their personal reaction of anger or hopelessness to cause them to point fingers at someone for causing the situation, or the government for not doing enough, are missing an opportunity to make real change. Those who overcome negative emotions to react with determination, compassion, and grit can exert their energy to craft better solutions. A healthy handling of these emotions can inspire us to help our communities and leave us better prepared for the future. This solution oriented mindset can result in care for those you live with, a call to a friend in need, a plan to organize a fundraiser, or an idea on how to reform institutions. We do not all have to agree on the proper solution, but we would all be better served if we worked towards a solution together rather than fixate on the past to place blame.
My roommate’s personal reaction was one of resourcefulness and independence. We began calling her our “Pa” as she rose to the occasion and helped to provide for us in our very own “Little House on the Prairie” immersive experience. Her political reaction reflects her personal reaction. Just as she chose independence and caring for those close to her in a time of crisis, she seeks to become less dependent on the government in the future. Independence doesn’t mean that we have to go off the grid, in fact, if every one of us felt the need to do so, that would definitely point to a degree of failure on the part of our institutions. However, a healthy independence and a focus on those near you is invaluable in a time of crisis. This increased independence from government entities requires individuals to have better personal preparation, be involved in their communities, and reach out to neighbors to provide aid when needed, as opposed to waiting for the federal government to swoop in and save them.
While scrolling through twitter, I encountered another young woman living in Texas during this less-than-ideal time, who I believe is the opposite of my roommate (or as we have taken to calling her, the “Anti-Pa”). She asked, “where is the state guard delivering water? Where is FEMA? Where is our government? We need water, basics and fuel.” She also blamed the entire fiasco on “voter suppression, intimidation and gerrymandering, […] global warming, capitalism, and our failed state.” I can certainly understand her frustration, and commiserate on the lack of resources, however, I was intrigued to see a woman my age having a vastly different reaction than myself. The more I scrolled, the more I encountered similar sentiments. “Why are we abandoned? Where is the government currently? We deserve better!” I questioned why I didn’t have the same reaction. I was certainly annoyed, cold, and frustrated, but for some reason, I didn’t jump straight to blaming the government for my suffering, or have the expectation that they would come to my aid. In fact, I became more acutely aware of just how lucky I was to have the luxury of power and clean water on a daily basis, and vowed to better prepare for similar events in the future.
Perhaps, this is because I don’t view the government as some all-powerful entity with the capability to predict all catastrophic events, and I am thankful to our government for the infrastructure I enjoy daily. Covid was unexpected. The extreme impact of the winter storm was unexpected. Surely, we can’t blame our government for being unprepared for something so extreme and unforeseeable. Yes, it is best that both our private and public institutions have systems and plans in place for unanticipated emergency situations, and this past year has further proved that. From these experiences, we can move forward and propose policies and plans that will leave us in a better position for the future, but pointing fingers gets us nowhere. There will always be natural disasters and unpredictable events, which by their very nature are difficult to foresee and plan for.
What we should be most prepared for is the protection and defense of the vulnerable. I was struck to see someone my age complaining about the government’s failure to assist her, because I assumed the government and other organizations were directing their time and energy (literally) to those in urgent need. I had hoped that Texas had the necessary systems in place to protect the most vulnerable in a time of crisis, and it is certainly worth noting that recent reports indicate that in parts of Texas, this was not the case.
It is worth decrying and criticizing our system’s functionality for how it failed to provide care for those who were desperately in need; however, something about a fellow young person complaining on twitter rubbed me the wrong way. A distinction should be made between those vulnerable populations that the government must plan to care for in times of crisis as opposed to those who are able to withstand a crisis without aid. Assistance is not one-size-fits-all and it shouldn’t be treated as such. I knew we were without power because hospitals and nursing homes needed it more than we did. Of course, we should be prepared to care for those in desperate need, but we shouldn’t expect to be prioritized in a situation where we are able to live through a temporarily difficult time without government aid.
I admit my roommates and I were fortunate. We are all young and had safety nets and friends in case circumstances became worse. Friends dropped off firewood, no pipes burst, and as far as I know, our water was safe to drink (I hope). We were unlucky enough to be without power for over two days. At times, our home went below 50 degrees. We took food out of our fridge and freezer and put them outside so that what we did have wouldn’t go bad. We didn’t go outside and enjoy the beautiful snow because we knew we wouldn’t have a way to warm up afterwards. And I looked like the Michelin man as I went to bed with four layers of clothing on. That being said, there was a distinct difference in the way we reacted compared to the blame game and anger I witnessed online.
Covid, wildfires, or freak winter storms are outside of our control, and yes, outside of our government’s control as well. The best we can do within a democracy is learn from our experiences and gradually work towards improvement, which is made possible because a democratic government is a tool we can utilize to improve our quality of life and disaster preparedness. It is not our savior, and it is never going to be perfect. I am concerned by an increased dependence on the government among young people, and the fact that instances of government failure in a crisis lead to calls for more dependence on government rather than less. Personally, I’m planning to take a page out of the Doomsday Prepper’s handbook.
Here are a few takeaways from this past week on the government’s role in a crisis: the government ought to prepare for disasters as efficiently as possible and to have a plan in place to provide aid to those who are most vulnerable; as citizens, we have the power to vote for and promote policies we believe will help us during a crisis; and we should not assume the government will always meet our every personal need and expectation. In sum, we can all better assist our community in times of crisis if we foster healthy personal and political reactions that are resourceful, thoughtful, and solution oriented.