From Dana's Guests

Hurricane Season

Auguste Roc

It's not always the case, but sometimes I'm struck by the similarities of how what happens on a macro-scale in the world around me is a perfect metaphor for what's happening on micro-scale in my life and in the lives of people around me.

Hurricane Katrina ripped into the South almost two weeks ago, tearing apart everything that was too fragile to withstand it. Buildings that were perfectly adequate in normal weather were reduced to rubble. Oil rigs and refining facilities tore loose and caused collateral damage. Levees that were on the edge, but still doing their jobs under normal circumstances, were torn apart, releasing the massive power of the lake into the city and causing more widespread destruction than Katrina did by itself. As a result, a major US and world-renowned city has been drowned, ruined and toxified, and it will take a long time to rebuild it -- if in fact, it is rebuilt at all.

And of course, the damage wasn't only physical. In fact, it could be argued that what Hurricane Katrina exposed has far more long-reaching repercussions than just mere physical reconstruction of the city. When Katrina tore through the South, it exposed the great rifts and weaknesses that run through American society and it's individual citizens. The fragile duct-tape of societal conventions that put the rich and poor in their respective places and keep them there were ripped apart and exposed for how flimsy a structure they are, and how devastating the effects of those conventions are on the individuals caught at the lowest end of our unique American caste system. Race and socio-economic issues, always rumbling underneath but muted by public indifference, reared their ugly heads again as Americans struggled to understand why the sea of suffering faces on TV coming to us live from our own backyard were predominantly black. The political support system we as Americans just assume will support us in times of peril -- all the way from the President to his cabinet to FEMA to the governor to the mayor to the police -- utterly collapsed for a time, leaving a void of anarchy and misery for those who tried to be good citizens, did what they were told, and were expectant of someone to come and help them. Politicians and media personalities still playing business as usual on TV -- their crassness and endless maneuvering and cronyism and corruption on full display next to images of people dying from dehydration surrounded by their own filth -- were clueless about how the rug was being torn out from under their feet. There has been an unprecedented amount of displacement, too, since many of those now being housed in temporary shelters may never go back to the affected areas. The shift in population will have broad and far-reaching impacts on American culture that we can only begin to guess at.

Macro-scale, micro-scale.

A personal hurricane has just started tearing through my friend's life. Like me, he is in his mid-30's -- young and relatively healthy, with a beautiful and strong wife and a gorgeous new baby daughter. Like me, he is a freelancer, taking a career path that is more exciting but far less stable and secure than a 9-5 job. He just found out he has thyroid cancer that is causing several large lumps in his neck, and more nodes that are also probably thyroid cancer in his lungs. Thankfully, he is covered by his wife's insurance plan, but he is still only at the diagnostic stage of his illness with the treatment scheduled to begin soon. Not only that and on top of a very tough and complex financial situation, he just found out that his largest and most viable work account was cancelled, leaving him scrambling to fill the gap. He and his family are going through crises that are compounding on top of each other, much in the same way as Katrina and it's aftermath.

More micro-scale. Several close friends and partners I know -- my family included -- are enduring Hurricane Finances, a stormy season where there are great dreams and plans about to be realized but where financial turbulence is threatening to distract our focus, derail our enthusiasm and motivation, and leaving behind a trail of half-accomplishments and wasted efforts and flattened dreams. These storms, while not maybe at the more drastic scale of my friend's Hurricane Cancer, are still very real and very personal and feel just as threatening as any physical hurricane.

We are all at risk from some form of hurricane season. In the physical world, there are many other natural disasters waiting to happen right in our own backyards. As I write this, another hurricane-force storm is sitting off the coast of Florida. There is the possibility of a massive earthquake in California, an eruption of Mount Rainier in Washington State (a volcanic event that would be several orders of magnitude greater than Mount St. Helens in the '80s), more ever-present Midwest tornadoes, and on it goes. And, anyone that will take half a second to slow down and think about their lives will immediately understand how close we are to personal disasters, too. I'm keenly aware of how similar my friend's life is to my own, and how easily I could be in his place. We all live in the path of the storm, on the fault line, in the shadow of destruction.

But there is another reality that Hurricane Katrina exposed for us this week -- our capacity for compassion and courage and determination and love and reconciliation. There's the story of the kid that stole the school bus, filled it up with largely women and children that he met on his way out of town and got everyone safely to the Astrodome in Houston. Incredibly, the authorities are talking about charging him for the theft, but his response was : "I don't care if I get blamed for it as long as I saved my people." Talk about courage and audacious determination. Media personalities that for years have been playing it safe with asking our leadership tough questions suddenly cutting them off mid-interview to point out the obvious -- namely, that large numbers of people were suffering and no one was doing anything about it. Kids selling lemonade for hurricane relief. People donating large sums to help house evacuees. Relatives, families, even strangers, opening up their homes for an unknown amount of time to help families get on their feet. One of the images that has stuck with me the most is a picture of an elderly white lady in a wheel chair being wheeled out for evacuation, and holding hands with a young black girl who is walking beside her. It's a beautiful image of love and connection and hope in the middle of horrible circumstances.

The personal hurricanes have also exposed some deep foundations in my own life and in the lives of those around me. My friend with cancer is not someone whose good qualities are buried beneath the surface -- he is a quality person who inspires love from those around him. But the ordinary layers of complaints and reluctance and the tolerance for half-living that we as humans all experience have been, at least temporarily, stripped away from him revealing a person of deep and shining faith, courage, celebration and love. And for us, his community, it has stripped away our normal inattention to reveal love and encouragement and support for him and his family. The financial hurricane in my own life and in the lives of my friends have not broken our wills -- if anything I see more self-expression and determination and positive action than I've ever seen before. We are tougher and more creative than our circumstances would appear, and we will not only survive but we will see our dreams realized.

As much as we would like to forget it, it's always hurricane season. "Normal life" doesn't really exist. Helen Keller said "Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature... Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing." Hurricanes bring destruction, but they also bring opportunity. Hurricane Katrina opened up a massive opportunity for Americans to come to grips with what was exposed about our country. The personal storms in the lives of my circle of friends have opened up a chance for change, for action, for choosing life and a dream, for celebration.

I would wager that at some level there is a hurricane currently landing in your country, your state, your city, your neighborhood, your home, your work, your church, your life. The peril is real, the stakes are high, the cameras are rolling and people are watching, hoping for someone to bring light into a dark situation. What will the storm reveal about you if you let it, and how will you respond to the opportunities it brings?

Paul Moment

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