Wednesday, August 31, 2005

"That could be me" is only human

Maggie says:
Like Marjorie, I was commenting on Mikaela's post and it got so long that I'll just put it here instead:

I agree that a global perspective is a good thing. And people being reminded of how many other people are dying around the world daily is a good thing. Being able to shrug away hundreds or thousands of deaths in another country should never happen.

But... this is home. There's no way around it. I grew up in hurricane culture. I think in New Mexico it might be easier for everyone to still feel very distant, very "them" about the devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi, about rain and water that can ruin lives in an hour. But I don't feel that. To be perfectly honest, I feel devastated by the Katrina damage in a way I did not about the tsunami. I'm emotional anyway - CNN can make me cry sometimes, and I was shell-shocked watching tsunami coverage - but I think it's only human for us to feel worse about tragedies that are closer, that we know.

And I know what life can look like after a hurricane. I know what it's like for falling trees to destroy the house next door but miraculously, not yours. I know what it's like to wait in lines for gas and batteries and water like everyone else around you. I know what it's like to sit in your dark house huddled with your family, listening to the wind and wondering what in the world it looks like outside, but being too scared to peek. I know about the morning after - seeing people just leveled with grief, being left with nothing, whole towns wiped away and water just everywhere.

But here is what (thankfully) I do not know: a hurricane like Katrina, devastation as bad as that, so many deaths, so many places destroyed, so many people left without hope or a way out. Rather than focusing on how people should've been upset by a worse tragedy that happened across the world, I think of this time as an opportunity to see the best in people, to notice how people will reach out beyond themselves and their comfort zones to help those who need it.

We should always be reaching out beyond our own safety and luxury; we should always be empathetic when tragedy strikes and when deaths are too much to bear. I agree with that. But I know that people respond most when they think, "That could be me." When they imagine their family hanging onto rooftops for safety, their family begging for drinking water in a disaster area, their family left without a home, without a place to work, without a community to call home. Yes, it's subjective. Maybe it's even selfish. But it's human. And we all are.

We use words like "unimaginable" not because we don't sympathize with faraway tragedies, but because they seem so foreign to what we know in our everyday lives that we can't picture ourselves suffering from them. Most of us in the U.S. can't really imagine a wave large enough to kill 21,000 people in an instant. We just can't. But a storm like Katrina, families like ours on TV, people like our neighbors or grandparents or coworkers or friends overcome with grief and loss - that seems very close. That is imaginable. And so we cry harder and we try to help, probably more than we did when a wave brought terrible, terrible destruction to a faraway place.

Helping other people in their time of tragedy opens our hearts. Each time our heart breaks with someone else's grief, we're better able to empathize every time something terrible happens. And however selfish the reason, having our heart opened is good no matter what, no matter how close to home rather than across the world. People feeling rather than shutting off makes great things happen. It makes us more human. It creates connections. And thinking of something like Katrina this way, rather than dismissing a perhaps biased U.S. response, is to me the only way to move forward.