Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Emergency Behaviour

Recently my local paper featured a story about the Lifeline shop in our local shopping centre, finally re-opening after the January flood.  They were glad to be open again, but struggling for volunteers, and hoped that the community spirit that got us through the flood would bring them more volunteers.

I've got some bad news for them.  The spirit of the floods will not continue.  People behave differently in an emergency.  There's normal life, and then there's what you do in a time of crisis.

To some extent, this is sad.  The willingness of Brisbane people to help complete strangers back in January was one of the best things that's happened here in years, even as the flood itself was one of the worst.  The fact that we are now back to our normal routine - neither particularly good nor particularly evil - is a bit of a let-down.

On the other hand, emergency behaviour is unpredictable.  We recently read stories from London of ordinary middle class young people looting shops, stealing things they didn't need just because they could.  They wouldn't normally do that, but people behave differently in an emergency.

In our normal life we have very clear boundaries defining what's socially acceptable.  In Australia it's clearly not acceptable to take someone else's property, even though some do.  We like it that way.  We're shocked when someone breaks the taboo, as people have been doing recently in our suburb.  A few weeks ago someone took the broken hot water system from under my house.  It was rubbish awaiting disposal, but its theft made me profoundly uneasy.  When an emergency like the London riots, or indeed our own flood, unleashes a tide of looting we feel that anarchy cannot be far away.  We give our police emergency powers.  Normal laws and freedoms are suspended.

Yet it is also not socially acceptable for Australians to interact too closely with strangers.  It is certainly not acceptable to wander into their homes and offer to help them clean up their houses and yards.  A polite conversation is acceptable but if it goes beyond two exchanges one of the parties will begin to look around for an escape.  A random offer of assistance is cause for deep suspicion, and is almost certain to be refused.

Our reaction to the flood suggests that we may not be entirely comfortable with this in ourselves.  We long for something closer, more open, more trusting.  Yet this will not come in a rush, as a result of a single emergency.  Our fear of anarchy will not allow it.  Emergency behaviour is too unpredictable.  It is just as likely to bring out our dark side as our noble side.

No, it will only come as a result of a sustained, deliberate change, a deep social and personal transformation.  This demon can only be cast out through prayer and fasting.

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