October 17, 2011 | Posted By Michael Brannigan, PhD

Georgia Holland, a volunteer from Christ Church United Methodist of Troy, and Miriam Santiago, who lives in a trailer home on First Avenue, carry away debris from the home from the flooding of Tropical Storm Irene. Sept. 3, 2011. (Brian Nearing/Times Union)

Shinichi Hashiura and his wife, Toyoko, were inseparable. They were working alongside each other in their barbershop-salon when Japan's 3/11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami flattened their village, crushing Toyoko as she tried to aid an elderly neighbor.

Just as his wife often hairdressed for the aged in their homes, the Daily Yomiuri reports that 62-year-old Hashiura now gives free haircuts to countless occupants in shelters throughout the blistered region.

Calamity is a cruel teacher. It offers an invaluable lesson in these fractured times -- the meaning and importance of community. Yet today we cheapen the term, using "community" loosely, applying it to groups, organizations and collectivities as in academic community, online community and business community.

A genuine community, as psychologist M. Scott Peck describes, beckons that we "rejoice together, mourn together, delight in each other" and "make others' conditions our own." Others' wounds become ours.

Norway, profoundly etched in trauma after a hellish July 22 massacre, faced its anguish with typical decorum and dignity. In solidarity with victims, families and country, and to uphold values of open-mindedness and diversity, citizens carried and displayed roses throughout the country. Church of Norway Presiding Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien reassured her community, "We will not let fear paralyze us."

These past seasons of bitter discontent, including our own widespread floods and the Texas wildfires, remind us that disaster is not some static, isolated event. Instead it's a potent multidimensional process exposing intermingling environmental, political, social and technological vulnerabilities. Consider the endless litany of sorrow -- Halifax explosion; San Francisco, Mexico City, Haiti and Pakistan earthquakes; Chernobyl nuclear accident; Chicago heat wave; 9/11; Katrina; Indian Ocean and Tohoku tsunamis; Burma typhoon; and others.

Still, despite nature's brutal indifference, "red in tooth and claw" as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, recovery and reconstruction is possible. This deflates the Hollywood version -- disaster as overwhelming panic, mass mayhem and pure self-centeredness.

During and after 9/11, notwithstanding communicative breakdowns as recorded in the 9/11 Commission Report, ordinary citizens rose to the occasion, assuming roles of rescue and support.

In "A Paradise Built in Hell," Rebecca Solnit gives a stirring account of ordinary people doing extraordinary things: carrying paraplegic accountant John Abruzzo down 69 floors to safety at the World Trade Center, organizing fleets of civilian boats (as with Katrina, strangers in boats from other states to rescue strangers), aiding the wounded, setting up supply chains and makeshift food stations for rescue workers on "the pile," or ground zero.

Disasters do not create communities. Instead, they provide a context that can ignite embers of humaneness lying dormant during times of everydayness. What is it about a disaster that could awaken stirrings of community?

Disaster, an unwelcome visitor, rattles us off our routine, forcing us to face those things we'd rather overlook: impermanence, attachment and ultimate uncertainties of fate. Whereas most often we sleepwalk through life, disaster demands that we be fully present to the task at hand. Procrastination is fatal.

How we endure calamity tests the strength of our social ligaments. In other words, conditions of normalcy prefigure disaster. Recovery ultimately depends on our capacity for community before calamity hits. Particularly given our cultural saturation in excess individualism, our ongoing challenge lies in rediscovering solidarity and shared purpose in the absence of disaster.

The collective resolve and resilience of ordinary people during the relentless floods sweeping our area and nearby states reminds us that true community is only possible through selflessness.

Can we cultivate and sustain community in the absence of disaster? Can we stay awake? When we return to "normal," to routine, community can be a distant dream as we sleepwalk and twitter our days, fooling ourselves that we are genuinely connected. One certainty is that we cannot afford to wait until the next calamity.

To see more of Dr. Brannigan's work, go to http://www.timesunion.com/brannigan.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers graduate online masters in bioethics programs. For more information on the AMBI master of bioethics online program, please visit the AMBI site.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.