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Disaster Rx: Try a Little Tenderness

When tragedy strikes, the best remedies are kindness and generosity

By Suzanne Gerber

When you’re holed up for a few days with nowhere to go, you get to thinking. And there’s nothing like a major tragedy to agitate the gray matter.
Like many of us, I imagine, I’ve watched more TV in the past three days than in the past three months (possibly three years, but I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt). I also had the radio on 24/7, and finally fell down the Twitter rabbit hole.
And like many of us, I further imagine, I sat slack-jawed watching the destruction — the local destruction — as inchoate feelings rose in me like the waters pounding the East Coast. I wasn’t interested in trying to articulate them, though; I was too much in feeling mode.

But today, as the waters began to recede, and the sun, at least here in New York City, peeked out for the first time in days, I could finally give words to the thought that underlay my reaction to all those horrific images.
There but for the grace of God go I.
And that got me really thinking. On the surface level, part of our obsession with watching calamitous events unfold is, I believe, simply to stay informed. But there’s so much more going on. The ancient Greeks, of course, intentionally staged their tragedies publicly so that audiences could view them together and experience a sense of catharsis (which Merriam-Webster defines as “a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension”).  
Shelter From a Storm
I watched Dr. Richard Besser on ABC News last night, talking about the dangers of contaminated waters, so I’m not so sure about the “purification” part. As for the purging: Well, for thousands of poor souls along the East Coast, that’s happening involuntarily.
For me, it’s been impossible to watch this week’s events unfold without flashing back to a little flood of my own, almost 19 years ago. I had just bought my very first (well, and only) apartment in Brooklyn, the place I still call home. It was the coldest night of the winter of 1993–94, and the oldest water main in New York City — which happened to be situated directly in front of my home — decided to burst.
Within minutes, water had gushed into the “garden” level of my duplex and was flooding the room of my 7-year-old son, Rory. In so doing, it caused his outward-opening door to slam shut, essentially locking the little guy inside. Long story short: We all lived (except for Buddy the cat), but we were rendered homeless for a few weeks while gas and electric (including heat) were being restored.
Rory lost everything he’d ever owned: clothes, toys, books, artwork, the foul ball hit by John Kruk in Shea Stadium that nearly broke his forearm (big guy, big swing, big pain) and his scorecard from the day four months earlier, when one-handed pitcher John Abbott threw a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium. (What I lost was cataloged on two single-spaced typed pages, as per my lawyer’s instructions.)
By 2 a.m., we were forcibly evacuated — we being myself, Rory, my (then) husband and the surviving cat. Putting us up, for who knew how long, was a pretty big favor to ask of anybody. There was only one person in the world I could call, and as luck would have it, we weren’t on speaking terms at the moment.
Not only did my sister pick up on the first ring, she instructed me to come over immediately. She and her husband rearranged their lives to accommodate ours — feeding us, entertaining us, consoling us, helping in the gazillion ways we needed help. (This was in the days before commonplace laptops and cell phones, so all communication was more complicated.)
My dear friend Judith, who had just moved out of the neighborhood with her then-husband, Joel, showed up later that morning. Joel had all sorts of lights and cables and tools and the kinds of things guys have. They escorted me home — I wouldn’t venture downstairs — and Judith helped me round up anything that might be salvageable and took them to the laundry, dry cleaners, etc. We collected important papers, extra clothing (poor Rory had none and had to live in the same pair of PJs for the whole weekend). Meanwhile, the husbands tried to assess the damage and do whatever could be done.
That night, we convened for dinner. I was afraid to ask about the downstairs. (I wasn’t sure about Buddy at that point.) But I knew I had to and asked what it was like down there. Joel looked at me very seriously and said, “I love what you’ve done with the place!”
And in that moment, I realized that there were two ways to approach this — with sadness and anger and fear, or with humor — and that the choice was mine.
(MORE: 8 Reasons Why Sisters Are Better Than Friends)
From Self-Care to Compassion
Over the next several weeks, I was the recipient of the most extraordinary outpouring of generosity and compassion. My boss, also a friend, told me to “take as much time as I needed, but try to get back in time to close the issue.” He and a dozen other friends bundled up like Weebles, braved the frigid indoor temperatures and tried to get my home back to some semblance of livable order. (The upstairs, anyway. Downstairs remained a mud hut cum hockey rink for the better part of nine months.)
Friends and colleagues donated food, clothes, food and money. Money! Suddenly I was a charity case. I don’t remember for how long, but we went back and forth between the studio my ex kept in the city and my sister’s. I think the cat stayed in Manhattan. I was on the news, twice, which led to the totally bizarre circumstance of people recognizing me on the streets for years.
But the thing that impressed me most, beyond how long it takes to get things fixed or to get reimbursed by insurance, was the kindness of friends and strangers.
Not to dwell on the unpleasant, but the same thing hit home in the aftermath of 9/11, then eight years after that, when my father died. These events shifted my inner landscape, and when I was going through them, I came to realize how indescribably deeply I appreciated things like phone calls and sympathy cards. They didn’t make me safer or bring back what was irretrievably lost, but they had a very strong, positive effect on my mood and optimism. For the record, email, facebook messages and texts don’t have the same effect.
These days we hear a lot about self-care and the need to be self-sufficient, and those are important attributes to develop. Yet so much more important, and healing, is the cultivation of genuine compassion for others. Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” And while compassion is essential, we shouldn’t stop there. We need to make the leap to empathy, or “being aware of, sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
But even empathy isn’t enough. We need to take action — even if that means simply picking up the phone. Better, of course, is lending a hand or making a donation. You can’t take on others' burden of suffering, but letting people know you’re there and that you care is truly a way to share some of the weight.

Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Read More
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