The Best Natural Disaster There Is? In Praise of Blizzards

The psychology around snow days is fascinating. Blizzards especially, like the one we experienced in […]

David Zahl / 1.25.16


The psychology around snow days is fascinating. Blizzards especially, like the one we experienced in Virginia over the weekend. For all they cover up, a massive snowstorm also exposes some less-than-fluffy sides of our species and culture.

If you’re like me, the snow days of childhood are cloaked in soft-focused wonder and excitement. A break from routine, a time to sled and build forts and drink hot chocolate. Like one of Riley’s Minnesota memories in Inside Out.

The snow days of adulthood are different. There is still beauty to be seen and fun to be had, walks to be taken, new recipes to be attempted, etc. But the good parts dissipate far more quickly, and not just for those of us with small children. Unlike, say, a hurricane, where fear tends to take center stage, the real issue in a snowstorm–if you live in a place with decent infrastructure–is the affront it represents to our sense of control. Disruption is unpleasant to the extent that our plans have become enshrined, or in proportion to how tightly we hold our agency, not to mention what we are looking to our “doing” to do for us.

Calvin_Crabby Guy Like Him

None of this qualifies as news, but it’s a helpful refresher, akin to what David Dudley described in his terrific NY Times column the other day, “In Case of Blizzard, Do Nothing”:

The Snow Gods reserve special contempt for those who don’t respect their ability to bring human activity to a standstill. The snow cares not for your deadlines, your happy hour plans, your scheduled C-section. It wants only to fall on the ground and lie there. And it wants you to, too.

Needless to say, you should. Unless you’re a plow driver or a parka-clad elected official trying to look essential, one doesn’t pretend to do battle against a blizzard. You submit. Surrender. Hunker down. A snowstorm rewards indolence and punishes the go-getters, which is only one of the many reasons it’s the best natural disaster there is.

I’m reminded of something the American Psychological Association publicized in 2010, which we touched on in the Work and Play issue of our magazine. Dr. Joseph Ferrari reported that 20 percent of Americans could be qualified as “chronic procrastinators,” which is larger than the percentage of those who suffer from clinical depression (about 7%). A separate study a few years earlier made plain what anyone who struggles with the issue knows all too well: the emotion consistently experienced at the time of procrastination, indeed the emotion that defines it as such, is guilt.

Procrastination, then, is more than delayed “doing,” it is delayed “doing” that induces guilt. This means that 20 percent of Americans feel acute guilt over not “getting things done” in a timely matter, or not working efficiently enough.

Funny-Church-Sign-During-Polar-Vortex-PictureWould 20 percent of Americans admit to feeling acute guilt about more conventional moral failures, such as lying or cheating? I highly doubt it. If these studies are to be trusted, then it would appear that productivity has surpassed goodness as our society’s highest value; righteousness is more a matter of efficiency than morality. Maybe it always has been.

This makes sense. To procrastinate is to transgress the most precious mandate of our society; dawdling breaks a law that has become, for all intents and purposes, holy.

Some say this is a recent development, that despite our bootstrapping past, America has only recently swallowed the whole loaf when it comes to productivity. Writing in The New York Times about “How To Stop Time,” Anna Della Subin theorized:

Procrastination as epidemic—and the constant guilt that goes with it—is peculiar to the modern era. The 21st-century capitalist world, in its never-ending drive for expansion, consecrates an always-on productivity for the sake of the greater fiscal health…

“Epidemic” is her word, not mine, but perhaps a less hyperbolic one than it might initially seem, in light of what she identifies as the real driving factor. Subin sees rising procrastination as a byproduct of the “always-on productivity” that a capitalistic society “consecrates,” or makes sacred. It is telling that she cannot avoid religious jargon in her diagnosis.

26. Waiting for Daffodils

All this to say, post-Jonas, I’ve been struck by how much guilt has come to play a role in the adult snow day, how many people have mentioned the freedom they connote with catastrophic weather. Freedom from what exactly is unclear, but I’m presuming some sort of accusation related to productivity and/or self-justification. Meaning, there are only a few sets of circumstances that can absolve us from the ‘fear of missing out’, performancism-wise, and a dramatic snowstorm is one. No one is getting any work done. No one is going to overtake us in whatever race we are running. They’re snowed in too. We can take a guilt-free day off. It’s revealing yet relieving. At least, it should be.

Unfortunately, as Dudley hints, there are those of us who refuse to accept the meteorological permission to relax, who appear to scoff at the very thing that, more often than not, we’ve been vocally pining for. I’m talking about the guy down the block who shovels his driveway every five seconds. The girl who can’t not get her run in, opting instead to go full-Rocky, regardless of how ridiculous or dangerous it looks. The voice from the heavens has shouted STOP, but we can’t. Our compulsions are exposed. We are exposed. In these instances, I wonder if we’re dealing not so much with an addiction to performancism, as a fear of sitting still. Anything but that. (Not even our devices can fully restore our sense of autonomy, or distract us from ourselves the entire time. Feeds slow down.)


And yet, perhaps that’s why the blizzard remains the best natural disaster there is, theologically speaking. The snow falls everywhere, irrespective of our plans and designs–or our response to them being disrupted–yet remains stunningly personal, burrowing into eyes and hair and nostrils. Yes, the storm puts our attempts to assert ourselves in merciful perspective. Yes, to those who like sledding, it is an occasion for joy, and yes, to those who are tired or guilt-ridden, it brings rest. But that’s not all.

Driving to work today, I couldn’t help but notice that the 20″ of blanketing looks most beautiful in the places on the route I know to be ugliest. Or, as Dudley put it:

…gloriously if briefly, [a blizzard] hides everything else — the plastic grocery bags and mini-marts and dog poop and salt-grimed Toyotas and sundry disorder of modernity. Watching the quotidian American crudscape transform into a fairy-tale kingdom is a legitimate wonder. Name another disaster that leaves the afflicted region more attractive in its wake.

I can think of at least one. Take it away, Bono:


One response to “The Best Natural Disaster There Is? In Praise of Blizzards”

  1. Carol says:

    Great article, Dave! Thank you!

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