It Shouldn’t Take a Natural Disaster for Us to Tap into Our Natural Humanity

Brett Sayer / Flickr

Hurricane response is another reminder of how connected we all are. When superstorm Sandy struck during the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign, it didn’t just knock the campaign off the front pages; it transformed it as well. Suddenly, the artificial walls that our political process erects to separate us into little demographic micro groups to make us believe that we have no mutual interests were blown away. At a moment of extreme polarization, Mother Nature brought us together.

The collective recovery effort, the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit, was great to see. We know that spirit is always there. After every disaster — natural or man- made — whether Hurricane Sandy or the Haiti earthquake or the Newtown shooting, we hear again and again how the disaster brought out the best in us.

But it shouldn’t take a natural disaster to make us tap into our natural humanity. After all, we know that there are people desperately in need all the time, in every community, in every country, even when it’s not on the front pages. Two thousand children under the age of five die every day from diseases that could have been prevented with clean water and proper sanitation, 3 million children die every year from poor nutrition, and 1.4 million from diseases that could be prevented by vaccination.

So how can we sustain all year round the best- self spirit that comes forward during natural disasters? How can we make it a part of our lives so it becomes as natural as breathing? In very real ways, the need to take care of our planet and those who are hurting, and the need to build our inner resilience and spiritual infrastructure, are connected.

It is something I found myself thinking about by candlelight each night for nearly a week after Hurricane Sandy when the electricity was out, and I was forced to disconnect from the day- to- day minutiae that I would have ordinarily considered important. It’s amazing how quickly one’s priorities get completely reordered when the power goes out. Not having much ability to connect with my outer world, I decided to embrace the moment and connect with my inner one. Many of the things that I thought at first were indispensable, I barely missed after a week. A famous passage from Matthew particularly spoke to me: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

Building our home upon a rock is about much more than protecting us from devastating storms; it’s about building and maintaining our spiritual infrastructure and resilience every day. And to keep our inner world strong it’s essential that we reach out to our outer world through compassion and giving.

Watching Oprah Winfrey interview Diana Nyad on Super Soul Sunday, I was struck by a story the distance swimmer told about community. A man on the street where she lives lost his wife, and was left to both earn a living and take care of his young family. Another neighbor, who already worked two jobs, took it upon herself to organize everyone in the neighborhood to rally around and help. So Diana got a note that said, “Diana, you’ve got to deliver dinner to that guy every other Wednesday night. If you can’t do it, get somebody else to do it. You’ve got — we’ve got — to help.”

What I love about that story is that it exemplifies making our giving instinct a part of our everyday lives. So often we think of giving as donating time or money to relief efforts for catastrophes in faraway places, helping people who have nothing. And that’s obviously critical to do when disaster strikes. But we forget that every day we are surrounded by opportunities to act on that same instinct for giving. These chances are always “under foot.” As the nineteenth- century naturalist John Burroughs put it, “The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.”

And every place is full of openings to make a real difference in the life of another human being. There are millions of small missed opportunities at home, in our offices, on the subway, on the street where we live, in the grocery store — what David Foster Wallace called “being able truly to care about other people . . . over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways, every day.” When we fl ex our giving muscles every day, the process begins to transform our own lives. Because however successful we are, when we go out in the world to “get things,” when we strive to achieve a goal, we are operating from a perceived deficit, focused on what we don’t have and are trying to obtain — until the goal is achieved. And then we go after the next goal. But when we give however little or much we have we are tapping into our sense of abundance and overflow.

When I was growing up in Athens, we lived in a one bedroom apartment and had little money. But my mother was a magical improviser. She was always able to conjure up what we needed, including a good education and healthy food. She only owned two dresses and never spent anything on herself. I remember her selling her last pair of little gold earrings. She borrowed from anyone she could so that her two daughters could go to college, and no matter how little we had she never failed to give to others with even less, and to make us feel that we were bigger than our circumstances.

It may be somewhat counterintuitive, but it is gravity that enables us to stand tall — that which seems to pull us down to earth and limit us actually enables us to expand upward. In the same way, it is when we give that we feel most abundant. Giving sends a message to the universe that we have all we need. We become virtuous by the practice of virtue, responsible by the practice of responsibility, generous by the practice of generosity, compassionate by the practice of compassion. And we become abundant by giving to others.

Giving and service mark the path to a world in which we are no longer strangers and alone, but members of a vast yet tightly knit family. “From everyone to whom much is given, much shall be required” is the biblical admonition at the heart of the good life. The Bible goes even further and tells us that we’ll be judged by what we do for the least among us.

The Bhagavad Gita draws attention to three different kinds of life: a life of inertia and dullness with no goals and achievement; a life full of action, busyness, and desire; and a life of goodness, which is not just about ourselves but about others. “ ‘Through selfless service, you will always be fruitful and find the fulfillment of your desires’: this is the promise of the Creator,” according to the Gita. The second life — which is how we have been defining success — is obviously a big improvement on the fi rst, but by itself it becomes driven by a hunger for “more” that’s never satisfied, and we become disconnected from who we truly are, and the riches inside us.

What living the third kind of life and making a difference in the life of even one other human being means is perfectly expressed in this story by Rabbi David Wolpe: My paternal grandfather died when my father was eleven years old. His mother was a widow at 34, and he — an only child — bore much of his grief alone. In accordance with traditional Jewish practice, he began to walk very early to synagogue each morning to say prayers in his father’s memory, a practice lasting for a year after a parent’s death. At the end of his fi rst week, he noticed that the ritual director of the synagogue, Mr. Einstein, walked past his home just as he left to walk to synagogue. Mr. Einstein, already advanced in years, explained, “Your home is on the way to the synagogue. I thought it might be fun to have some company. That way, I don’t have to walk alone.” For a year my father and Mr. Einstein walked through the New England seasons, the humidity of summer and the snow of winter. They talked about life and loss, and for a while my father was not so alone. After my parents married and my oldest brother was born my father called Mr. Einstein, now well into his 90s, and asked if he could meet my father’s new wife and child. Mr. Einstein agreed, but said that in view of his age, my father would have to come to him. My father writes: “The journey was long and complicated. His home, by car, was fully twenty minutes away. I drove in tears as I realized what he had done. He had walked for an hour to my home so that I would not have to be alone each morning. . . . By the simplest of gestures, the act of caring, he took a frightened child and he led him with confidence and with faith back into life.”

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 228–235