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I wake from a dream. In it, a tsunami crashes through the doors and windows of my house, which I can’t close in time, and I run through the corridors as the water rises up around me, unable to keep the relentless force of nature at bay. It is both terrifying and, somehow, inevitable.

I wake suddenly. The word I wake with, sweat beading on my neck and forehead, is ‘catastrophe’. It rings in my mind like a warning bell. But I am in my messy room, the sun streaming through the gap in the curtains, birds fly past my ninth-floor window like they do every day. Nothing could be more normal than this. And yet… ‘catastrophe’.

My phone comes to life at the touch of a thumb and the news pours into my open palm – wildfires, floods, famine, war, hate crimes, and the extinction of 100 species a day. My mind shudders with the effort of processing so much grief. I try not to think about it too deeply – I can feel the emotions rising like little tsunamis around my heart, and I pull myself up and out of bed, determined for this to be a normal day. I wash my face – eyes, nose, mouth and ears, a ritual of cleansing the senses. The shock of cold water wakes me up, but echoes the crashing waves from my dream. That unstoppable power, rolling and rising, rising, rising. Threatening to swallow everything whole.

I remember visiting the tsunami-struck shoreline in Sri Lanka, tarpaulin tents propping up the lives of fishermen and their families, and the only building still standing: a temple, right on the beach, welcoming the lapping waves. Salt lines decorating the frescos inside, meticulously detailed despite absorbing the shock of the tsunami as it raged across the beach that Christmas, 2004. It was a miracle, the people said. The power of the gods, manifest in bricks, mortar, mirror and golden statues. They smiled like the sun.

Breakfast is a welcome mundanity, but still the feeling lingers… ‘catastrophe’.

The word spins in my mind. I google it, as I do when things preoccupy me without cause. The first entry reads:

mid 16th century (in the sense ‘denouement’): from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophē ‘overturning, sudden turn’, from kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning’ (from strephein ‘to turn’).

An overturning. A sudden turn. Downturn. The spinning begins to make sense – turning, turning, turning this word over until it’s message is understood. Joanna Macy’s concept of the Great Turning enters my mind, the process of shifting from our current life-destroying industrial civilisation to a life-sustaining one. Things get worse before they get better. It strikes me: perhaps catastrophe is a kind of necessary disaster; an event that wakes us up to the underlying truth of things with an unavoidable clarity, and shocks us into action. Like every disaster movie ever made, catastrophe is a devastation but also a turning point in our human capacity to come together, to help one another, to step up to a challenge without hesitation, without a hint of the doubt that so often niggles and holds us back from meeting life whole.

I close my eyes, feel the waters rising and accept the feeling. Resistance never really works as a preventative strategy; better to meet reality full on. So, catastrophe. A resonance from crises happening halfway across the world. Crises that affect some more than others. A warning. A feeling deep within. A turning, a spiral, a decent that is also an ascent, though we can’t see it that way from the inside. Seen from the outside, perhaps we have entered an age in which our perception of catastrophe is a gift, in the sense that it provokes exactly the qualities and urgency these times require of us. A pre-catastrophic sense of what’s coming, which might just move us to act before it’s too late.


What does catastrophe mean to you? Tell us in the comments below...

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