The 1982 movie by this name may be unfamiliar to younger blog readers, but bears on events unfolding in Louisiana as this year’s Mississippi-River floodwaters continue to rise.
Here is the background.
First – the movie. Sophie’s Choice was a truly extraordinary film on every level. Based on a novel by William Styron, the picture won Meryl Streep an Academy Award for her performance in the title role and cemented her justly deserved reputation as one of the greatest actresses of any time.
The full story is complex and tragic; there is no way to do it justice in a few sentences. Here’s the bit that you and I need to know for today’s purposes. Sophie, living in post-World-War-II New York, is tormented by a decision she had been forced to make, on the fly, in a Nazi concentration camp, a few years earlier, during the war. A Nazi guard made her choose which of her two children would go to a children’s camp, and thereby have at least a chance to live; and which would go directly to the crematorium. The only alternative the Nazi offered? That both children could die, then and there. At the end, this memory helps drive Sophie to suicide.
Second – Louisiana today. News media have been covering this breaking story in recent weeks. Faced with record spring runoff throughout the Mississippi watershed, the US Army Corps of Engineers, other federal agencies and state and local officials, have been assessing the inundation likely under a range of scenarios. Under the first, they open the Morganza Floodway above New Orleans. Under the second, they allow the full volume of water to head south uncontrolled. Under the last, they divert excess water through the Old River Control structure. Officials are essentially making a trade: certain flooding of about 3000 square miles of small towns and countryside in rural Louisiana in order to prevent a potentially worse disaster – levee failures in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and flooding exceeding that of Katrina, wiping out whole neighborhoods as well as countless chemical facilities and oil refineries. Those responsible have made the decision – to open the Floodway. They may be implementing that choice even as I write this. Thousands of people are evacuating the areas of likely flooding, sandbagging in an effort to minimize their local loss, and grieving.
Psychologists and social scientists, most notably Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, tell us that when we hear about disasters of this magnitude, we experience numbing. We’re incapable of grasping the enormity of such events as the aggregated sum of immense, overwhelming personal tragedies. Instead, we allow them to become empty statistics. So when we learn of starving millions, when we study the Holocaust, or Stalin’s execution of millions as he cemented his power in the former Soviet Union, or the fact that a third of the population between Iceland and India died of the Black Death in the winter of 1347-1348, we quickly consign that to some compartment in our brain where we store other factoids (how many ounces in a pound? How many games in Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak? How many calories in a Big Mac? etc.).
Just this once, let’s try consciously to override this universal tendency. Let’s use this occasion to see if we can make ourselves a bit less calloused about the tragedy that is unfolding.
How to do this?
Here are a few ideas.
First, let’s put ourselves in the place of people packing up, preparing to leave the only homes they’ve ever known. Picture the decisions we’re trying to make. Which paltry few things are we going to take? Where are we going to go? What resources can we draw on, given that we’re losing our jobs as well as our homes? What do we tell the kids, who know something terrible is happening but can’t comprehend it? For that matter, how can we explain to grandma, who’s in advanced stage of Alzheimers, who’s being asked to move out of her room? What do we do about the one child who picked today to be sick? Maybe the car broke down last night. Any chance to get that fixed? How do we get our heads around the idea that this has happened after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and last year’s oil spill, have already drained our resilience and our energies?
Or…put yourself in the shoes of people in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. There’s relief…and right behind it there’s guilt. You’ve been saved from the worst – maybe. And only at the price of immense suffering – distress and misery for thousands of folks no better or worse, no less deserving, than you, all across the surrounding area. Some of them are family. How can you look them in the eye next time you see them? What can you possibly do to make them whole? To show your gratitude for the sacrifice they made? To demonstrate that you all really were in this together?
Don’t move quickly on. Dwell on these realities. Let them sink in. Expand this short list, which doesn’t begin to do justice to the state of things. Come up with your better set of thoughts. Remember…this is how it felt to be Sophie’s kids. “What’s happening to my sister? Why is she going that way?” “Why am I being separated from my brother and mother? Mommy!”
Second, let’s now put ourselves in the shoes of those who are making the decision to open the Morganza Floodway. Is there any joy here? Any self-congratulation? Of course not. None of these men and women, from Army Corps of Engineers generals and Governor Bobby Jindal on down, can find any reason for satisfaction. They didn’t sign on for this…destruction. They’re builders. Rejuvenators! Givers of hope! This is wrong! They’re today’s Sophie. They were forced to choose.
And here’s a key point. Like Sophie, they simply found themselves in this role. Few of these people played any part in creating the conditions that made this choice necessary. For that, we have to look back to their predecessors – the long line of thousands and thousands of state and local officials, and those serving in the Corps of Engineers over the past 150 years. And none of those people deliberately set out to sabotage cities and towns. Each day out of those 60,000 days, they made small decisions and infinitesimal compromises needed to get through the day. On this scale, it was impossible to see how that ratcheted up the risk, bit by bit.
And they weren’t the only ones. Land developers and business leaders made the decision to snuggle up more and more resources right behind the levees all up and down the Mississippi. And all those who are being flooded out get annual notices from the Corps to the effect that flooding would be a distinct possibility.
Third, we don’t have to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Instead, we need to honestly take stock of our own lives. No quarter of the United States is free from risk from natural hazards, industrial accidents, or willful acts of terror. And every action we take throughout our lives – where to set down roots and start a family, what jobs to accept, whether to be active in community affairs or sit on the sidelines – each decision and its sequelae set into motion a local ratcheting up of risk. Each day, we’re thoughtlessly, opportunistically, setting up a problem for either ourselves or our children.
What’s happening in Louisiana is not just happening to someone else, someone faceless. It’s our destiny unless we consciously make decisions to get off this cycle of inevitable disaster and repetitive loss. Across the nation, each of us has played a small part in what’s unfolding today. And we’re playing a bigger part in similar tragedies lining up to happen tomorrow. We can and should do better. The starting point? Building-in community resilience into every aspect of our thinking, rather than just treating it as an afterthought.
It’s not just Sophie’s choice.