By Esther Mann, LCSW
The dust is beginning to settle, at least for many of us. If you’re among the unfortunate people who have to first tackle the prospect of dealing with inspectors, FEMA representatives, adjusters, demolition people, plumbers, electricians, and so many other much-needed individuals, by now you most probably have some kind of plan in place for what needs to be done and, hopefully, when it will get done.
Others, who only had to deal with the loss of electricity for what seemed like an eternity, can sigh a great sigh of relief as they return to their powered-up homes and partake in the joy of once again sleeping on their well-broken-in mattresses, using their own bathrooms, and undoubtedly appreciating their homes in a new and profound way.
Sadly, there are still people living in areas that haven’t yet had their electricity restored and have to listen to all sorts of scary rumors predicting that we may find ourselves well into the winter months before any power is forthcoming. Hopefully, these are just ugly rumors, but who can know for sure?
And, most tragically, there are those among us who have lost virtually everything. Whose cars, homes, and, for some, even their businesses, were cruelly ripped away, in what seemed like a maniacal moment. One minute there was a house to come home to—and the next minute, devastation.
How do we process such a catastrophe? Surely we all listen to the news and have always been aware of suffering on a grand scale due to tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters. But few of us have ever experienced them in our own backyards. It’s one thing reading about it in a newspaper, but, no matter how empathetic we consider ourselves, there is a huge gap between reading about such things and living them. It changes a person. It can be humbling. It should be humbling. And it holds up a mirror to each of us as we gain some insights about ourselves. Sometimes we like what we see and sometimes we feel disgusted by our inability to cope or our own self-involvement or inertia that keeps us from helping others.
Some of us search for meaning, wondering what we should be taking from such an experience. Is there a message that we need to decode? A bigger picture? A life lesson? We scratch our heads, trying to make sense of it all. Putting together my own thoughts and insights from family and friends, I’ll attempt to share what I’m feeling and hearing from others.
I’m hearing words like “shell-shocked,” “disconnected,” and “vulnerable” quite often. What we once took for granted as routine, predictable, even secure, is now replaced by a free-floating sense of “what next?” The illusion of safety is no longer present. The creature comforts we took for granted had given us an inflated sense of who we are.
People are wondering whether Hurricane Sandy represents some sort of boundary line, a clear indication of a “before” and now an “after.” A new reality. Is this the first of many such events? Can we never again feel as safe as we once felt? Will we forever sleep with one eye open? For many, innocence is forever lost.
Such individuals are experiencing fear, fatigue, and frustration. Sure, we can go out and purchase a generator so that next time around we aren’t thrown into darkness. Some of us even have the luxury of considering moving to a location that is less prone to flooding. But can we ever truly guarantee our own safety and that of our families? As my father, alav ha’shalom, used to say, “If a bullet has your name on it, it will find you.”
With all this talk of doom and gloom, there must be something we can do to move forward with a positive attitude. And, of course, there must be some lessons worth learning from this painful experience. No doubt, for many, heightened emunah and bitachon will serve as the first line of defense and possibly the only practical line of defense. Plain and simple.
Regarding lessons learned, the prevailing theme is one of being reminded that no one is truly safe from pain and suffering. I’m reminded of a song my grandchildren like to listen to called “Jump Rope,” in which the chorus is “up, down, up, down.” And it goes on to say that life gets hard and then gets better. We all have our ups and downs and probably will do better if we expect them and prepare for them emotionally.
Then, of course, is the chant that “stuff is just stuff.” It comes and it goes, and if we build our lives and egos on what we have, we’re in for some truly rude awakenings. At the end of the day, the stuff is transient. However, it is our families, our friends, our hugs, and, equally important, our “sheim tov” that define us and enable us to feel safe and meaningful.
This is a good time to ask yourselves whether you’ve reached out to others less fortunate during this unnerving time. Have you impacted at least one other life in a way that made all the difference for them and encouraged them to feel nurtured and secure? Hopefully, the answer is yes. And if the answer is no, there is still plenty of time to do so. The simple question “What can I do to help?” can go a very long way.
For those of you feeling alone and abandoned, try to reach out to others who can help. Give the more fortunate the opportunity to do a mitzvah and feel good about themselves. And try to discover during this tumultuous time what you do still have control over, and seize that control. It could be the ability to still daven, or to connect with friends old and new who can sit with you and share your pain. Again, there is no substitute for a great big hug.
Ultimately, we are more or less a resilient bunch. We persevere. And in the process, if we make sure to keep our eyes wide open, we become stronger, smarter, and more sensitive to what is real and what is an illusion. We probably will never forget our stories relating to Hurricane Sandy, and will go on to share them with generations to come. But with the gory details, we must never forget to include stories of the abundance of chesed that this hurricane inspired, and the powerful lessons learned.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.