But I don’t want to judge anyone too harshly – none of us truly know how to respond when something of this magnitude occurs.
And that’s something that’s been on my mind a lot in the last week – my own response to natural disasters, tragedies of epic proportions, raw human suffering and need.
So many people – my friends, my co-workers, people on Facebook and Twitter – have been discussing the tragedy. I’ve seen many status updates either directly or indirectly related to the quakes. #prayforjapan and similar hashtags have been trending on Twitter. (For those of you who are not Twitter-literate, that basically means that the topic “pray for Japan” has been extremely popular.) I’ve been participating in a discussion with other bloggers about whether or not we will post on the tsunami.
But despite all the media coverage and conversation on the damage from the quakes, the danger from the over-heating nuclear power plant, and the suffering of the Japanese people, I’m not as visibly, demonstrably distraught over the current situation as I was last year about the disaster in Haiti. I think that this is partially because last January, I was on Winter Break when earthquake struck and so I sat at home for several weeks, watching footage of screaming children having an arm or leg amputated without any anesthetic.
I would turn on the news and then spend the next half hour (or more) listening to various reports with tears streaming down my face. In contrast, I haven’t shed more than a solitary tear here or there for the Japanese people.
But before you think I’ve turned into some kind of unfeeling Gila monster over the past year, let me explain.
At some point last January or February, I realized that sitting around my apartment in Maryland and crying didn’t really do anyone any good, least of all the Haitians themselves. I wanted to help, but I’m not a medical professional and couldn’t volunteer to help in that sort of capacity; I can't even stomach having my own blood drawn and have to kick back on a cot until my wooziness subsides. I didn’t really think that I was in much of a position to volunteer to fly down and dig people free of the rubble, either – my arms are approximately as strong and muscular as a well-cooked fettuccine noodle. I really wouldn’t be all that useful in a crisis situation, to be honest.
I desperately wanted to help – the footage of those screaming children was enough to turn anyone’s stomach, not just a soft-hearted former elementary school teacher such as myself. But as an under-paid adjunct professor, I didn’t have much extra cash in my bank account. I donated what I could, but still found myself sitting around and sobbing and asking, now what? Tears were not the answer, though – that was just wallowing. I realized that if I was so moved by the suffering I was seeing, I needed to find an active way to help.
Essentially, I made a decision about the kind of person that I wanted to be. I didn’t want to sit around wringing my hands, limited by my own tiny bank account. I didn’t want to donate $50 and be done with the situation, either – I couldn’t simply forget the children who were suffering in Haiti, and even if I could have put them from my mind, I didn’t want to forget them. I realized, though, that constantly thinking about them wasn’t healthy. I needed to find a healthy emotional response and a way to help.
I racked my brain for things I could contribute. People were donating clothes, but I wasn’t satisfied with the idea of rounding up a few sweatshirts to send off. Representatives of relief organizations were getting on TV and telling people that money was the best thing to donate, anyway, because then these organizations could purchase exactly what was most needed – water, food and medical supplies. My bank account was currently drained down to its minimum required balance and I wouldn’t be receiving another paycheck until Winter Break was over, so I became convinced that I needed to FIND more money somewhere else.
Then I came up with the idea of selling my hand-made jewelry. I had more than I could possibly wear, plus extra supplies from teaching jewelry classes and leftovers from my own projects. I went out and purchased some extra jewelry wire, then got to work making duplicates and triplicates of my own necklaces. I opened an Etsy store, linked it to my Facebook account, and basically spammed all my friends to buy my jewelry with the promise that I would donate all the proceeds to the Red Cross, Unicef and Doctors Without Borders relief efforts in Haiti.
By the time I had to close up shop in May (in order to pack things for our move to New York), I had raised and donated a few hundred more dollars. It wasn’t that much money in the grand scheme of things, but that cash bought some blankets, medical supplies and tent shelters for the Haitians. And I was crying a lot less.
And this is the kind of person that I want to be – not unmoved, but moving. When we see suffering, we should be moved by it – but sometimes we are so upset that we become paralyzed. At least, that has been my tendency in the past. But someone who is paralyzed by disaster is powerless to help alleviate suffering.
I don’t want to be useless in a crisis, unable to help. I don’t want to be limited by my own emotions; I want to overcome my human frailty in order to act on my human empathy. As stated in the beautiful Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Where there is despair, [let me sow] hope.”
I don’t mean this to be a religious appeal or any kind of guilt trip – I just simply want to declare my own desire to be a stronger, more selfless person. I’m not really sure if I’ve reached that goal, or if it’s a goal that you can even reach fully. It seems likely to me that the average person could always find more ways to give of herself. But this isn’t all about donating time or money to me, but also about being strong. Strong enough to face heartache and disaster and keep going, so that instead of indulging my own grief, even in the most warranted moments, I might wipe away other people’s tears. Sometimes, more than anything, it is that strength that I long for.
But the suffering people on my mind right now are half a world away in Japan, and so instead of wiping away tears, I am going to check my bank account balance and see if I can't find ten or twenty more dollars to donate. And then I’m going to go on a walk with my husband and clear my head, because it never does anyone any good when I sit around at home too much.