Humanity. Much better than expected.
These past two days I’ve been gazing at my fellow office workers and wondering: If an earthquake struck here, who would be a hero? Who would run back into the crumbling building for a mate, who would risk their life for another?
I had imagined that, of the hundreds of people, a few would shine.
Maybe that chick over there that always looks calm and competent. Maybe not that bloke who can never manage eye contact.
I also wondered what I would do and had a terrifying thought that I would be a panicker, a useless screamer (or swearer, more likely) who only contributed to the chaos.
But, as it turns out, more people are everyday heroes than I thought.
In the Christchurch footage there were dozens of office workers – men in suits straining slightly at the buttons, women in neatly creased slacks – who pitched in immediately.
While they had dust in their hair and blood on their faces. They went back in, slung people over their shoulders, created makeshift stretchers.
It’s easy (well, easier) to be brave, stoic, generous in the aftermath. After shock and helplessness comes the drive to do something, to help.
But these were people bleeding, hurt, frightened. Thanks to Sky’s live coverage, we could see this was literally in the minutes following the harrowing 45-odd seconds when the quake hit. This was people helping without thinking.
I wanted to know where this impulse came from, so I called Professor Sandy McFarlane – one of the nation’s top experts in trauma. And he said:
Many people in disaster situations do find they commit heroic acts, which is something they never expected. In some people… altruism drives their actions. They immediately see the predicament of others. And it’s a character trait that’s the essence of a healthy society.
He also pointed out that when you look at photos or footage from traumatic events, everywhere, people huddle together. They bond.
Two of the most common words used after disaster strikes are ‘chaos’ and ‘panic’. In disaster movies people are hysterical, seek self preservation at all costs, the hero of the piece a sole bastion of reason, logic and selflessness.
But apparently that’s a false representation of what people actually do. Apparently we’re actually pretty awesome at getting our shit together when it really counts.
After terrorists hit New York’s World Trade Centre, US sociologist Professor Lee Clarke published a paper on how people act after a disaster. He found:
After five decades studying scores of disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tornadoes, one of the strongest findings is that people rarely lose control.
He also found: People do not turn on their neighbours. They do not forget their morals. They work together.
People die the same way they live, with friends, loved ones and colleagues – in communities. When danger arises, the rule – as in normal situations – is for people to help those next to them before they help themselves.
So I’ll look more kindly on that nervous guy from accounts, turns out he’s probably a hero after all.
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