Hurricane Harvey and Disaster Spirituality

Hurricane Harvey is over. The flood waters in many water-ravaged areas has gone down. Weary and worn, grateful yet shellshocked, Houstonians are beginning to resume life in the sun. In other areas, water continues to rise as reservoir waters stretch into surrounding neighborhoods. Even today as I write, I have friends who are forced to evacuate their homes.

This was my first experience with a natural disaster. I’m a Southern native Californian and I’m only accustomed to ground shakes. To say I was completely unprepared for what I saw or experienced is an understatement. The most gripping part of it all? The uncertainty. The not knowing. That alone has left me exhausted and today, somber.

I had my two children with me during the four-day ordeal. Had this happened six months ago, I would have had my large, second story, two-bedroom apartment — fully furnished with candles, food, pots, pans, and enough entertainment to ride out the storm. Even if my street there had flooded, we would have been relatively unaffected.

But this didn’t happen six months ago. It happened now. Now when I had just downgraded and recently moved into a studio apartment. Moved recently enough that I hadn’t even placed furniture into it, save for our beds and clothes. Now, after I had essentially sold or given away most of my possession. And whatever I didn’t rid myself of, was in storage many miles from me. All my plans for me and the boys to leisurely take our belongings out of storage and decorate our place were abruptly halted. This was happening now. Now, when I have no pots, no pans, no plates, no cutlery, no salaried teaching job, no quick access to extra money, living in a ground floor studio that is allowing water to seep in in various places. Within fifteen minutes of the deluge, “Now” also involved weathering the remaining three days of the storm with a car that no longer ran. In a neighborhood that intermittently flooded. The uncertainty could have been maddening. Every night, as I went to sleep with rain pouring down, I didn’t know to what I would awake. If I would be able to ensure their safety. What happens if the rain continues and my place floods? What do I do if a tornado touches down and I have the boys with me? What if I run out of food? All that could be done then, was take it moment by moment and allow the jokes to fly.

I learned that humor is my coping mechanism. The more stressed I felt, the more lewd the jokes became (with adults) and the more songs and dances I did (with my children). It was a temporary halt to my anxiety and panic. The levity works well when you have two small children in the storm with you. The duty of caring for them and going on with business as usual was a great diversion. But when the storm was over, and I had to send them to their dad’s, the jig was up. Literally. No more dancing videos. No more jokes. Only left with the same uncertainty…and the question of what to do with it.

The day that the rains started I remember having a conversation with a friend and her roommate as we assuaged cabin fever with raspberry lemon pound cake. We talked about the instable life of artists and the stability of a having a career. I said, “Careers and salaries give the illusion of control. That illusion is nice. But truly, we all are one emergency, one layoff away from losing everything.”

That was prophetic. In less than 24 hours, I would lose my car. Others would lose their entire homes. Others their lives.

***

I could easily say that our safety was due to my mother’s fervent prayers. I could consider myself blessed or having received favor from God. But truly…that’s just because I don’t want to believe that it could have been me. It could have been my children. And there is no justifiable reason that it wasn’t.

I believe in a Higher Source Power or God, if you will. I practice my own spirituality with deep reverence out of necessity. I need my beliefs. Just like others need to use God or spirituality as a way to explain this. To explain why natural selection selects us or doesn’t. To make positivity from the pain. I understand this. I can relate. However, our cliché spiritual responses, although seemingly innocuous, have harmful implications.

“God has a purpose for all things.” I wonder if people mean to make God sound like President Snow in the Hunger Games. Using nature as the Game Maker, to inflict intense disaster for His own personal pleasure or displeasure. Why does God purpose for children to die? It’s easy to say that everything happens for a reason…when it’s likely the reason you’re even saying that is because it’s not your child. One can make purpose and meaning with any personal situation, but that is up to others to choose for themselves; not for us to non-consentually throw our ideas of purpose and meaning onto those suffering.

“This is God’s way of bringing us all together.” Natural disasters are a great equalizer of people. It reduces all of us down to our bare humanity. It washes away the masks, the divisions in economics, neighborhood, race, religion. We all become…people again. However, that’s because we people finally decided to allow ourselves to be changed by choosing empathy. Many do not choose this, even in times of collective trauma. I can’t say that God brought us together, when it’s the people who rise to meet the challenges. Nature provided the catalyst.

“This is to cleanse us of our negative energy and bring about our awakening.” These comments are tone-deaf. This level of victim-blaming on a massive scale is so alarming. It equates the disaster with punishment; makes spirituality punitive and revengeful. It also never explains why the murderers and thieves, those who pillage whole countries and societies don’t see disaster. Massive atrocities perpetrated by powerful people continue unabated. The despots, the rapists, the pedophiles, the warmongers…somehow avoid these catastrophes.

“I’ll pray the storm away; I’ll pray for your safety.” Sometimes, there isn’t anything we can do during the moments when we most want to help. That feeling of helplessness is heart-wrenching. Prayers and thoughts can be the only way for us to offer our support. Those well-wishes can be of great support. Yet, if a storm can be prayed away, what prevents prayers from halting the flooding happening right now in India, Nepal, Bangladesh? Do prayers not work for genocide and war? It is painful to sit with our helplessness, armed only with our empathy and concern. However, if prayers as we know it are that effective, it’s a wonder that we haven’t yet attained world peace or eradicated global starvation, with so many practitioners of various faith and spiritual systems praying and meditating.

“God kept us safe.” It would seem that God gives preferential treatment. It seems God is Regina George from Mean Girls, saying to those outside the clique “You can’t sit with us”. It is difficult to explain why some prayers make it through and other prayers are stuck on call-waiting. This can quickly get into spiritual elitism, which is to equate one’s access to safety as akin to their spiritual standing. If this were the case, Western countries must be the most self-actualized countries in the world, while Third World countries must be on a cosmic shit-list. It erases the fact that there are political, geographic, environmental, local planning, racial, social, economic factors that seem to choose who suffers most in these situations and who can better mitigate damages. And to use God or any spiritual system to explain to justify one’s blessing is also inadvertently saying others deserved to suffer and die and face loss. This is weaponized spirituality.

***

Spirituality is not a band-aid which shields us from the random occurrences of our human existence on Earth. Living in the gap — the space where spirituality and logic do not meet, where there are no reasonable answers — is uncomfortable, but I am learning that perhaps I should get comfortable with uncertainty. I do believe in a Higher Power but cannot explain how I am favored and others are not. Why I was born in America and live in Houston, and those born in Haiti face similar natural disasters but also have the added burden of contending with economic strangulation and abject poverty. Why I, and so many others, seem to have won some kind of incarnation lottery.

So, I ask myself: how do I practice my spirituality, show gratitude for my blessings, while still making space for those who didn’t see those blessings actualize?

I’m beginning to consider this idea: God is not the answer. God is the question. I am the answer.

Perhaps, when we speak…instead of trying to use God and spirituality to explain the WHY, we should use our God and spirituality to explain the HOW. How does my spirituality empower me to be of service here and now?

Perhaps the only blessings that matter are the ones we are constantly creating. What if we used #blessed when we’re creating the blessings, not just receiving them?

Perhaps the only prayer that matters is the prayer of presence. Use my body, my power, my agency as a prayer. Pray with my muscles, pray with my hands and feet, pray with my heart. Pray with my talent, pray with my time, pray with resources, pray with my money, pray with my efforts.

I don’t know what I’m going to do now. It’s uncertain how I’ll be able to get another car. I’m an artist, and don’t know how long it will take until I get these next checks…checks I was desperately waiting on to make it through the next month. But my uncertainty is mirrored by those affected by Harvey, those self-employed, entrepreneurs, those living check to check, those living with food instability, single parents, those in war-torn areas, those with unexpected medical bills and deaths…the uncertainty of life.

I don’t have answers. My spiritual beliefs and what I see happening in the world are on two polar opposites. I do know that I believe I will get through this, but that belief doesn’t matter to anyone but me. The only thing that matters is that I KNOW that I will help others get through it any way I can.