Catastrophes and communities of care

I’m sitting here in the Red Cross office in Toronto ready to respond to phone calls from people offering help to the families affected by last Thursday’s tornado.  ToronadoWhat few people know is that Ontario gets almost 50% as many tornadoes every year as does “tornado alley” in the US.  Thing is, most of these hit in rural areas and there’s little damage done.  On Thursday though an F2 (150+ miles per hour winds) tornado passed right through Toronto, causing some damage in the city and lots of damage in a couple of suburbs just north of the city.  One 11 year old boy, Owen MacPherson, died after seeking shelter in a conservation area along with some other children who were with him at a nature day camp.  The tornado picked up the park’s gatehouse and flung it into the picnic shelter where Owen was hit.  2,500 people were evacuated, and over 600 homes were affected; roofs torn off, cars tossed like confetti, trees and telephone poles careening through the air.  All of this happening only a few miles from where I sat in comfort enjoying a good meal with friends.  So why do I have time, sitting here, to be writing?  Well, let me tell you a little about the storm and a little about what’s happened here since.  There’s lots to be learned for all of us I think.We were out with friends having dinner that evening – my first journey out after dental surgery on Monday.  Four of us had arrived just minutes before the storm hit and, since we’d chosen not to sit out on the patio, were pretty much oblivious to what was going on outside.  It was only when the third couple hadn’t arrived that we found out – by calling them – that they were unable to leave their house because of the torrential rain and horrific winds.  They did manage to get there about 20 minutes later and we had a lovely evening as chaos – unbeknownst to us – reigned (no pun intended) all around.   How surprised we were when we left the restaurant to find tree branches in the road and hear the reports of what had happened.  How very easy it is to be oblivious to what’s going on around you it seems.

The first thing that I did when I got home was check in with the Red Cross to find out where emergency shelters were being set up, and I signed up for a number of shifts over the weekend.  There were four shelters ready to go … but nobody showed up.  Not one single person!  The communities had come together; women were cooking and men were clearing debris (I apologize for how sexist that sounds but that’s what seemed to have happened although I’m sure there were some men cooking and some women clearing too).  These are not necessarily wealthy communities; but they are filled with people who know how to be a community, how to take care of and support each other, how to respond with full human capacity.

So here I sit by the phone.  It’s rung a few times, with tradespeople – carpenters, plumbers, electricians – offering their services.  Since nobody has registered at any of the emergency shelters we don’t need to do much to help people find each other.  Since friends and family and neighbours are pitching in, our services are basically not much needed.  How wonderful is that?

I can’t help but compare this to the responses I keep seeing on TV to the health care initiative in the US.  This isn’t about an attitude of “I’m fine and so why worry about others less fortunate than I am“.  This is about knowing that we’re here to take care of each other.  Albert Einstein explained it this way:  “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”  President Obama said:  “You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit — the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”

How fortunate I am to be blessed with retirement, to be able to respond with empathy and care.  Maybe if we’d all just pause in our busy lives for a moment and think about our own good fortune and the needs of those around us … well, wouldn’t it just be a better world for everyone.  I think so, and hope you do too.

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