We’ve witnessed – courtesy of the media’s omnipresent cameras and microphones – yet another disaster, this time the terrible tornado devastation in Oklahoma.
And multiple agents quickly set up to collect funds and resources in response. A Facebook friend posted a phone number for receiving donations by text message. The final episode of “Dancing with the Stars” repeatedly promoted the Red Cross.
And all of that is good in multiple ways. First, it gets us participating in the recovery that is so necessary. Lives have been shattered, and the need is great.
Second, it connects us more closely with others, if only for a moment. Through the sense of shared experience, we remember that we are indeed one nation, one society, one common humanity.
Third, it pulls us out of our own (often petty) problems and confronts us with the nature of genuine suffering.
One of the Hasidic tales recorded by Martin Buber suggests that, if we had the opportunity to choose from all the troubles of the world to experience, we’d end up picking the ones we already have.
I experienced a couple major wildfires when I lived in southern California, and I noticed something during one of them. Lots of people were evacuated from their homes to centrally located shelters (San Diego baseball stadium, for instance).
In these locations, community developed as people from various walks of life were forced together. For the first time for some, they met and interacted with people of different religious, racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds.
And the media showed numerous stories of unlikely friendships and unexpected generosity, all made possible by the unavoidable proximity of people who would never otherwise meet.
The trouble was, as soon as the danger was over, folks returned to their homes and daily lives – and retreated behind their familiar emotional and experiential barriers. The budding community developed in shared shelter evaporated.
And while the immediate crisis disappeared, lots of suffering continued unacknowledged and unabated.
Some returned home to find possessions or even loved ones lost in the conflagration. Others left a shelter situation that was at least as comfortable as their customary situation, returning to poverty, discrimination and loneliness.
My heart continues to ache for the people of Moore, Okla. – and those in Boston, and Newtown, Conn., and Joplin and Haiti, and so many other places. I’ve seen up close what a major tornado can do, and I’ve got a daughter and her family in Oklahoma.
But I also see two problems that go unrecognized in our temporary hyper-focus on “the disaster of the week.”
One is how quickly our minds return to business as usual, how fast the barriers between people are rebuilt, how soon others become invisible again. We text our donation or make an online contribution, and then forget.
And the other is the list of ongoing, still unresolved problems in all of our communities – poverty, unemployment, lack of health care or affordable housing, and so on.
There are no emergency funds for these disasters, but they ruin lives every day and drain energy and resources that might help our society recover even faster when an emergency comes along.
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