Let me be brief, as there is a hurricane coming and I have lots to do.
But I really need to say this:
Over the last two days, I have heard many politicians and emergency officials on the East Coast reminding us to be “smart” or “cautious.” But I wish that one of them would also remind us to be kind.
Maybe that would be stepping outside the bounds of conventional politics—straying into a more spiritual kind of leadership. Maybe, in preparing for a disaster, kindness just isn’t as important as smarts. But still, I feel the need to hear someone remind us about its value.
Of course, health and safety depends on many very practical factors, such as how well we have prepared and how effective the emergency services are in our area. But I expect that much of our experience of a natural disaster also depends on whether we have taken the opportunity to experience a moment of kindness with a stranger.
Let me back up a step.
On Thursday evening, my family and I were evacuated from Cape May, the first place in the Northeast to face a mandatory evacuation. When we heard the order, we had only a ¼ tank of gas, and there were already long lines at gas stations. Nonetheless, we had to join the bumper-to-bumper traffic getting off the Cape, with no sense of when or if we would get gas, or how far up the coast the traffic (or panic) would continue.
I noticed how easily tempers could flare in such a situation, even three days before the hurricane was due to hit. Once we did find a gas station with supplies and a reasonable line, two vehicles—a car and a huge RV-actually cut in line. The RV actually put itself in a position that made it impossible for even those people who already had gas to leave. This astounding and inconsiderate action caused other drivers to become quite angry, not surprisingly, and a shouting match ensued.
Eventually we made it home to Long Island, and began preparations to wait out the hurricane here. Somewhat ahead of the pack, I began to shop for water, non-perishable food, and the seemingly non-existent D batteries.
As I did this, I became aware of a very primal impulse in me—the desire to protect myself and my family. I had slipped into struggle-for-survival mode, although at this stage it did not involve spears or guns. It simply took the form of strategizing-figuring out how to maximize my chances of getting water and batteries before the stores sold out. But this is just another way of saying that if there were limited supplies, I wanted mine, whether or not that meant someone else would not get theirs.
I don’t particularly like this side of me. I prefer to focus on what could be called “higher” motivations. But surely the urge to protect our own turf, to fight for our own survival, is part of human nature, and I was feeling it.
Most people typically extend that primal urge to include members of their family; indeed, sometimes the pressing needs of vulnerable family members (sick children, a frail parents) can increase our competitiveness. But our immediate family is really just a slightly wider definition of ourselves. It is still our turf that we are protecting.
Sometimes we extend our circle of concern wider still: to include nearby neighbors or an acquaintance whom we know to be alone or vulnerable. Sometimes we expand our circle of concern to include other members of our “tribe,” by which I mean people who are “like us”—people in our religious, spiritual, social or professional communities.
And of course, there are the thousands of heroic Red Cross volunteers and emergency service personnel for whom it is absolutely normal to care for complete strangers. But for most of us, when we are stressed and afraid and in a rush, it can be really difficult to extend our circle of concern to complete strangers, to people who are not like us.
If we did expand our circle of concern a bit wider, however, then the nature of our fear, and our struggle for survival, would change. For example, it would not matter to me whether or not you got the last D battery, because you and I are part of the same family, part of a bigger whole—we are not two. Whose battery is it anyway?
Well, that is truly a noble thought. And I did think it. Really.
And yet, when racing from supermarket to supermarket, feeling a little bit of panic, feeling the nervousness and uptightness in others around me, it was very hard for me not to be the one who ran a bit faster, who thought a bit more cleverly, who edged out someone else for the protein bars.
But no matter how big the rush, there is almost always time to pause for a moment to connect with ourselves, to remember the big picture, to meditate, or simply to unhook ourselves from the collective panic and remember our “higher” nature.
And this brings me back to kindness.
For one of the best ways to unhook from the collective panic is simply to take a moment to show some kindness to someone whom we don’t know. This really is quite a powerful form of meditation. We can just stop to help someone. We can let someone get in line before us. We can let that car go in front of us. We can offer to help someone with his bags. We can take a moment to smile. We can take whatever opportunity we can to create a moment of commonality with someone who seems “other” to us. In just a moment, we can suggest, through our actions, that we really are all in this together.
We can do this for no reason. Or we can do this because we are selfish. For the best way to give ourselves a momentary relief of stress is to be kind to someone else. In that moment, we remember that we are not really in such a hurry. For if we have a moment to stop and help someone else, then our own situation is really not quite so bad as we feared. We step out of the stresscalation, we calm down a bit, and that feels good. And as we widen our circle of concern to include strangers, even momentarily, we remember that we are not really on our own.
Of course, this may mean that we might not get that last D battery. But we might just discover a very different source of power.
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