“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
~ John F. Kennedy
I live on the water at the Jersey shore and the reports about Hurricane Sandy were not to be taken lightly. I caught the last train out of Washington D.C. and headed back to the home. Everything on the dock had to be secured or removed and it was already raining. From the Amtrak station I raced down the Garden State Parkway.
The rain was relentless.
I went straight through the house to the back prepared to work in the rain to save my stuff. I had only moved into my house months earlier, and since I travel a lot barely knew the neighbors. The water was rapidly rising. Trees were already down and everyone had already been evacuated. The town was broadcasting a red alert. I had to get in and get out — fast.
I came in the front door and ran to the back to get out to the dock. But what I saw stopped me in my tracks.
My neighbors, Tom and Eileen, had done an act of kindness above and beyond anything I might have expected. They had removed ALL of the furniture including tables, chairs, footstools, cushions and whatever else was lying around and brought them up to the house under the protective cover of the porch. Then they secured everything that needed to be tied down.
This wasn’t a ten-minute job. If I had to have done it myself it would have taken nearly an hour to move and secure each piece.
I knew a flood of near-Biblical proportions was coming, but what I didn’t know was that the greater surge would be in the pervasive kindness, altruism and gratitude among people. Caring moves us to act.
Edward O. Wilson, sociobiologist and professor emeritus, Harvard University believes that our drive to survive favors altruism when our group, our community is involved. In other words, we move from competing against others in our group (selfishness) toward helping them when it serves evolution. We stop competing and begin helping when the chips are down. Or, in his words “individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue.”
As a psychologist living in Monmouth County I was immediately immersed in trauma work. The therapeutic community could not help but be inundated. Nothing, not even 9/11 matched the intense and prolonged pain people shared. Monmouth had the greatest loss of people in the terrorist attack and many were directly affected. But with the hurricane everyone you spoke to was distressed.
One of the people I spoke with was a first responder. When the seawall broke in Sea Bright he left his home in Union Beach, the next town over, to respond. During the surge he became part of a rescue team that saved four people trapped in their home. Nineteen hours later an Army vehicle was driving him back home — but they couldn’t find it. It was gone. Not just damaged. Gone. So was his car. Everything. Gone. They could not even find the cement slab his home had been built on because it was buried under mounds of shifted sand. Everything he owned was in the house. Nothing survived.
How did he cope? He said he was lucky he wasn’t in the house and asked them to turn around and let him go back and do what he could to help the people in Sea Bright.
Over the next several weeks I worked with about 50 people who were deeply affected by the storm. No matter their story a collective chant arose: “We were lucky,” they each said. On occasion someone offered a variant: “We were very lucky.” But the feeling of being lucky motivated each person to help others. Empathy drives altruism.
Jeremy Rifkin has written in Empathic Civilization that to empathize is to civilize, and to civilize is to empathize. He argues that there is no empathy in heaven or utopia because empathy is based on the commonness of human struggle and our shared fragility of life. Without the essential common bond of mortality and struggle there is no empathic awareness. Rather than narcissism, materialism and aggression he views empathy, compassion, and humanitarianism as the primary drives.
In the wake of the storm are endless stories of gratitude and thanks followed by stories of those feeling gratitude helping others. Those who had a little damage were thankful they didn’t have more and were willing to share their good fortune by donating their time or their money or their clothes for others. Those who lost their home and their business were thankful for their lives, and then donated their time to help the utility workers get fed, or the Army or National Guard get messages home. Gratitude in almost every instance gave way to altruism, which in turn inspired others.
As the power outage continued and the gasoline became scarce there was a shift toward greater sharing and unselfishness. One man had a large freezer full of salmon burgers that were quickly thawing. He texted the neighborhood and told everyone to bring some bread and their friends. He fired up his gas grill and spent the afternoon cooking for 30 people.
Some of the restaurants in the area pooled together their collective resources and started cooking for the people from the armed forces, the National Guard, and the utility workers. They could have easily banded together simply to preserve the food they had, but instead made a direct effort to cook and prepare it for others. Three meals a day were provided in many areas by a team of restaurateurs that made it all happen. Those with generators let their friends and neighbors move in. Those with cash gave money to those who couldn’t use the ATM machines. Many hotels dropped their rates to let people stay longer. Verizon didn’t charge for domestic calls or texts during the storm or recovery period. My local laundromat and dry cleaner hired extra people and stayed open late to make sure folks got clean clothes.
I’ve seen devastation on the news in other parts of the country from tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and the like. While I had sympathy, I never had true empathy.
Now I will never see images of a natural disaster and not be moved. The most poignant moment for me was walking by a well-known hotel in the shore area that had hundreds of out-of-town utility workers staying in it. Plates from Ohio, Mississippi, Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Kentucky littered the parking lot. On the night I walked by there were more out-of-town plates than those from New Jersey: People coming to help us. That was unique. We were always the ones going to help others. Now they were able to return the favor.
The first responder mentioned above stayed in shelters until some of his friends put him up. He was staying with them when I spoke to him about his ordeal. After helping him begin the grief work to manage when a disaster pushes the reset button on your life –he offered me an expression I’ve heard many times in the last several weeks.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I had a chance to help save someone’s life. Some of my coworkers were out of town when the storm hit and they didn’t get that chance. I was very lucky.”