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Know the West

Lessons from a rampaging river


It's obvious from news photos that the city of Grand Forks, N.D., will never be the same after this year's cataclysmic flood and fire. What's not so obvious in the scenes of washed-out and burned-out buildings is that the landscape is not all that has changed. Mike Jacobs, editor of the Grand Forks Herald, calls the flood a "life-changing experience" that has altered the very fabric of the community - and forced him to re-examine the role of the newspaper in it.

You hear plenty these days about news media in modern life. Studies tell us that even as crime goes down, televised reports of crime remain constant; health guru Dr. Andrew Weil goes so far as to recommend a weekly "news fast" to improve mental outlook and physical healing. Readers and listeners routinely kvetch about the relentlessly negative flavor of our news diet.

In years past, Jacobs said, the Herald had made numerous efforts at "civic journalism," with mixed results. "The "editorial we" is deeply ingrained," he said ruefully, and reverts sooner or later to the "us and them" mentality.

But in the days of crisis, scrambling to keep the community informed as waters rose, for Jacobs the moment of epiphany came when the Herald building itself burned down. While waiting and learning to accept the worst, he said, things became clear: "It's not "we" who run the newspaper, but "we" who live together in this community."

This shift is not just in the newspaper; Jacobs says everyone has become better neighbors, better friends, stronger characters. One man said it was a comfort just to see the words "Grand Forks' on the Herald, evidence that the community still existed. Another family, its damaged possessions turned out in the yard, posted a sign declaring, "We are not what we own."

Why does it take an apocalypse to bring out the best in us? Why do we wait for catastrophe to teach us what we already know, and to make the changes we earnestly desire? Suffering is all around us, but suffering alone rarely calls forth the compassionate, energized, visionary self that shows itself in times of emergency: a blizzard, a power outage, an auto wreck, a lost child.

Mike Jacobs thinks it takes a great "leveler" like the Red River flood, which made everyone a victim. No one was singled out; everyone was affected. Now Grand Forks has become a "we," and as the newspaper rebuilds along with the city, its new mission statements are all being written in first person plural: we and us, instead of us and them. The overall tone has changed; editorials are more inclusive, "less hectoring, less moralistic, less introspective."

First person plural. A community pulling together, with its newspaper carrying the call to rally. A fresh start, a chance to sweep away the inertia of the past and set foot squarely into the future of one's choosing. Why wait for an apocalypse?

Such changes, at least theoretically, are within our grasp. Logically, in fact, an intact community (or business or family) should have even better resources than one under siege: When phone lines are up, cars are running, fresh water is coming out of the tap and houses are not filled with mud, it should be that much easier to act on our visions, to effect the changes we desire.

But it isn't. The comforts we crave and jealously guard become the enemy of change. Distracted by mind games and power plays, we ignore the wisdom of the heart. We indulge petty differences, overlooking our much greater commonalities. Rarely, rarely do we let down our guard enough to confess our deepest wishes, truest beliefs, real regrets.

I am not asking for a flood; too many lowland friends are already packed for higher ground. But I wonder if we couldn't take down some of the mental sandbags and let our inner truth run a more natural course. I wonder if we couldn't take a damp page from the Grand Forks Herald and begin thinking in first person plural: remembering the "we" in our home, neighborhood, business; in our community, nation, world.

We are not what we own. We are not our jobs. We are co-habitants of one planet, subject to her whim, here to live out our dreams as best we can. And now, while the phone is working and there's no mud to shovel from the floor, we can act on those dreams. Or, we can wait for the flood.

'Asta Bowen writes in Somers, Montana.