It is scarcely possible to open the newspaper – as I still do – without coming face to face with a “crisis.”  It may be in Syria, North Korea, Greece, Sudan, London, New Hampshire or Penn Station.  The causes are as various as the sites: terrorism, civil war, missiles, religion, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, immigration, opiates, climate change, rotting infrastructure and revenge.  Together, they threaten to merge in a generalized sense of danger, unchecked and uncontrollable.

Crisis: what has that word come to mean? Can a single act betoken a crisis?  Must a situation persist, resisting change or amelioration, to constitute a crisis?  Or is it a moment when forces hang in the balance pending a resolution?  Does a crisis impel an immediate response? Or can a crisis endure as a chronic condition? Is a crisis something different from a calamity?  Is this more than a semantic problem?

My first memory of the use of the word “crisis” goes back 55 years to 1962: the Cuban missile crisis.  I was 15 and frightened.  My mother urged me to trust the president – it was his business to keep us safe.  But my fear bested her reasoning and I shouted back, “My life is my business.” My bedside radio stayed on all night. Long before the Internet was around to hype the event, or conspirators trolled the airwaves, radio reporters conveyed a sense through their tense, deadpan broadcasts and uninterrupted coverage that the world was in extremis – and that world included me.

What characterized the Cuban missile crisis, as I experienced it, was a sense that the world hung precariously, urgently, in balance in that moment.  It wasn’t simply a matter of good v. evil, communism v. capitalism, democracy v. autocracy.  It wasn’t a trend or a pattern. It wasn’t even complex. It was life or death.  Further, it was a moment when it seemed that the outcome was in the hands of just two men – John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. It was terrifying to conjure up the consequences of a false move by either one. It was wholly unclear whether the naval quarantine ordered by Kennedy would trigger a Soviet nuclear response.

The public crisis lasted six days and ended, as we now remember, with the Soviet Union dismantling the missiles it had installed in Cuba. The quarantine subsequently was lifted. There was a resolution.  To be sure, there were and are lingering consequences of the affair, but the crisis, as such, was over.

Not so easy now.  The events and conditions deemed “crises” have a myriad of causes. They defy unilateral, or bilateral, solutions.  They persist.  One crisis – an earthquake – segues into another – cholera. Drought becomes starvation. Perhaps this is abetted by the communications glut, or by one critical need attempting to outbid the other for resources and attention. Or perhaps it is the seemingly impenetrable complexity of an interconnected world that baffles and overwhelms us.

All is not dark and hopeless — far from it.  Remarkably good and promising things are happening all around us, sparkling with optimism. To resist and protest is uplifting. To learn about biological, technological, physiological, artistic and archaeological break-throughs is exhilarating.  But it is nevertheless concerning that the recurrent branding of world events as crises may lead us to become increasingly insensible to situations and events that are critical, including those that could be intelligently addressed and perhaps solved.  Crises seem not to invite solutions. Rather, they have become conditions that evoke hand-wringing, check-writing and marching on the way to acceptance of the unacceptable, as we go back to business.

Privately, we disclaim responsibility for solutions by acknowledging we are not the ones who can cure cancer, end greenhouse emissions or give peace a chance.  We are not rocket-scientists. We deprecate our potential to foster change that might, just marginally, relieve despairing conditions of one kind or another, in one place or another.  “We must be the change we wish to see,” Gandhi wrote. Does the massing of crises debilitate our capacity to see how?

The starfish story comes to mind. The child tosses a starfish back in the ocean, recognizing the truth that there are too many beached starfish for her alone to save them all.  But, as she wisely notes, she makes a difference to each one she rescues.  It is unusual for one person to effect that difference, though Malala Yousafzai, in her context, comes to mind.  More commonly, like Alan Kurdi’s drowning, the individual produces an outcry, but no change.

Crises are, for the most part, created by men and women, often (though not always) with evil intent. And it is possible for men and women of good will to chip away at them, even if comprehensive solutions elude us. Though we may not absolve ourselves fully of responsibility by taking marginal actions to problem-solve – by speaking out, stepping up, persisting in outrage — our humanity demands that, as we lurch from disaster to catastrophe, we not allow ourselves to become hardened to crisis as a way of life.


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