I remember wading through thigh-high monsoon flooded streets in Chang Mai, northern Thailand, when I lived in Asia during the Seventies, and finally seeking asylum at a hotel above the floodline, along with other tourists and foreign journalists. Having an American passport helped, of course. Yet this week I was unprepared for the searing images of carnage and chaos in a great city in our own rich, proud and powerful country, even though my assistant has five members of her son’s Tulane baseball team crashing at her house, with no college to return to.
The family that does not pull together is pulled apart. Now is the time to come together locally and nationally in our best effort to help care immediately for all those affected by Hurricane Katrina, especially the most disadvantaged members of our society. Meanwhile, let’s try to reflect upon and mobilize towards learning how to be better prepared in the future for such environmental devastation, for whatever reasons—and the experts will be arguing the latter point for decades, I’m sure. But let’s leave that for later. There are plenty of other societal problems we face which could also be benefited by some cogent, long-term, nonpartisan planning and analysis about causation and interdependence, given our complex economic and geo-political reality today. I think there’s little point in distractedly comforting ourselves by prematurely assigning blame or arguing right now about global warming and environmental degradation, or about why God did or did not do whatever we think he should have or shouldn’t have done. There is plenty of time to contemplate the mysterious ways of the Ultimate, however one may conceive of it, during the rest of ones life, should one be compelled to do so. This is the time for firm resolve, putting aside our differences, and for selfless, compassionate action.
Individually, I feel we could all benefit by reflecting on letting go a little of the fear and grief for what was and could of/should of/would have been—the well-known What If Syndrome. Let’s be firm in spirit and leave room for hope, and for grace, whatever that may mean to us—and strive intelligently and effectively at what needs to be done right now. We must eschew discouragement and despair and leave room for the new and even unexpected to assert itself, and for humanity’s highest and noblest instincts to come to the fore, as they did during last winter’s devastating tsunami. Let us learn the lesson of the fleeting, ephemeral, impermanent nature of all the things of this world, a truth common to all the great faiths– a recognition that helps free us from the overwhelming attachment and ignorance which leaves us unprepared to confront the losses inevitable in life.
I pray that those who are suffering may find solace, and the homeless find shelter; that the thirsty and hungry find food and drink, and the ill and infirm find medicine and care; that the lost may be found, and the separated reunited with their loved ones… And I pray and hope that all of us will refrain from taking advantage of the situation by looting, exploiting, and further compounding our collective problems.
How to handle losing everything? No words will suffice. Yet there is timeless wisdom in our Buddhist teachings about letting go–of the past, for instance, and becoming more intentionally, consciously, responsibly present—and learning to accept and let be, even amidst our greatest efforts to benefit the greatest good for the greatest number. Utilizing this tragedy as a collective on-the-job learning moment could serve us well as we move towards our as yet undefined future. This is the greatest natural catastrophe of our lifetime here in this country, yet I hope and pray that we may be able to arise like a phoenix from the ashes, through applying our best, altruistic selves to this dire situation.
There are incredibly difficult and challenging days, months and even years ahead. The family that does not pull together is pulled apart. With cooperation, we shall find our way through.