Together we heal – A bystander’s story

Coming out of the trauma named Hurricane Harvey feels like I am finally peeking over the top of a mountain that I have been climbing for days. It may seem like a strange analogy, but being raised in New Mexico, I remember reaching the top of the mountain just to see that the mountain was only a hill, and a bigger mountain still loomed ahead. Even still, sure that the end is near, I would carry on.

In the wake of this collective trauma, there is the horrifying fear that everything I have grown so accustomed to in my surroundings may be lost. What do I save? What will I need? What means the most to me?

When I realize I am safe, I see the horrifying pictures on TV. People not even a mile away from where I am are trapped in homes or on their rooftops. I see pictures of the retirement home down the street with elderly people sitting in four feet of water awaiting rescue. I hear people in shock talking about leaving family heirlooms, photos or even a home they have lived in for 50 years behind, and they exclaim how grateful they are to be alive. I feel guilt unlike any other. Surely there is something I can do. I am able-bodied, and I have food, water and electricity. How can I help?  I must help. I get into my car and realize that there is nowhere to go; I have neither boat nor high-profile vehicle. I realize that right now my attempt to help will only add to the problems. Defeated, I return home. Glued to the television, I wonder once again how long I will be safe, how long will it be before I become one of the casualties of the flood. More images, more valiant efforts flood my vision. Social media posts are filled with people begging for an opportunity to help. More and more people are feeling like me, helpless and powerless in the face of so much devastation. I check in with everyone I know. Are you okay? How is your family? I find myself going through my list of contacts. Have I heard from everyone? Is everyone safe?

A day later, there is still no flooding in my home. After just six hours without electricity, I’m back to the news and that sinking feeling that my community is falling apart and I am somehow failing it returns. “How can I help?” becomes the mantra across the world. I can see these words on people’s faces and hear them spoken everywhere I turn. Just when the guilt becomes unbearable, the rain decreases enough to meander a path to a local church that is taking in refugees. Quickly, I gather linens, clothing and toiletries and arrive to find a line of cars waiting for their donations to be unloaded. Food, water, clothing, bedding, toys, pet food, etc. etc. etc. I walk inside and begin the task of sorting and separating the mounds of treasures that have come from people just like me. I found a place that, for a couple of hours, I could be a part of something much bigger than me—a part of something that gives us all hope. For that brief period of time, my guilt is relieved and my anxiety lessened—all because I was able to help.

Then the sun comes out. I rejoice as I take stock of my life and the things I hold dear. I feel grateful.

Everyone talks about the generosity of people helping each other. I propose that something besides generosity is at work here in Houston. It’s something deeper than generosity; it’s more intrinsic. It’s the need we feel to be connected to each other—to reach out when a fellow is hurt or desperate. It’s a need that is so deep, so primal that to ignore it is like ignoring the need to sleep or eat.

The fear of getting involved that most of us experience daily quickly dissipates and we seek ways to help, to connect, and to care. Suddenly, all the things that keep us isolated from each other are gone, and we are one.

Does disaster bring out the best in us?  My response is a resounding yes. We are able, in the face of disaster, to forget our insecurities, our selfish desires and the notion that the universe is centered around us. We focus our attention on others. As the great psychologist and author Harville Hendrix points out, individual healing is accomplished in relationship with others.

Let’s take the time to help each other heal. Help someone else. And, just as important, allow others to help you heal, too.