Living on the REAL world: suffering and sorrow.

“Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
 For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.” –
Psalm 30:4-5 (NIV)

“Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart.” Ecclesiastes 7:3 (NET)

Just a few days in, Houstonians cope with agony and acute loss that already transcend description. At the same time every displaced or unsettled resident can see, with greater clarity hour by hour, the outline of the chronic suffering that lies ahead – not just for the next few days or weeks (that could be managed), but for years. The cheap phrase “life-changing experience” takes on new meaning – and for all too many – the form of oppressive, unbearable weight. This might be doubly true for that sub-community who had been uprooted from New Orleans by Katrina and relocated in Houston, and who now find themselves violently uprooted for the second time in only twelve years.

Meanwhile, the rest of America struggles to get its collective head around what has just happened. The geographical boundary and the social space separating existential catastrophe from normalcy is remarkably sharp – as illustrated forcefully by the side-by-side juxtaposition of those displaced by Harvey, and a swarm of emergency responders and embedded journalists, cycling back and forth between the disaster zone and (relative) calm – a virtual universe untouched by Harvey but for the secondhand experience provided by broadcast and social media.

We can only hope that those bearing the brunt of Hurricane Harvey’s flooding will encounter – not merely encounter, but reinvent anew – the kind of grassroots communities that have developed informally and organically in prior disasters, as described by Daniel Aldrich, Rebecca Solnit, and Eric Klinenberg. Too often, disasters only further aggravate pre-existing social ills. But these and other authors found multiple instances of something truly remarkable. Disasters that have broken down social barriers. Catastrophes that have turned cities formerly little more than clusters of distrusting strangers into true communities with a shared sense of “we’re all in this together,” at least for brief periods. Ms. Solnit has a most compelling title for this: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Already there is some evidence for such community building in Harvey. An example: the “Cajun Navy” of small flat-bottomed boats marshaled from nearby Texas and Louisiana in response to social media, and responsible for so many of the early rescues even as larger-government-based forces were struggling to organize.

In a similar manner, we can pray that the actual Harvey actors and agents – the participants, those caught in ground zero – will recognize, when they look in life’s rear-view mirror, that the anguish lasted only for a season, and was ultimately replaced by joy (keeping in mind that the opposite of joy is not sorrow but the lack of hope).

Psalm 30:4-5 is for them, not you and me.

What, then, about the rest of us, the mere spectators?

Well, first and foremost, we can’t merely stand idly by. Neither can we show up en masse, adding to the disruption and the burden of those struggling to regroup.  Instead, we need to hope that government at federal, state, and local levels, in partnership with both local and national private enterprise, can develop a framework for action and a response that will foster recovery and along the way quickly restore “agency” to people’s lives, individually and collectively — the power to think for themselves and act in ways that shape their recovery, rather than passively submit plans and actions imposed by others. Such a framework would allow us to contribute through private donations to NGO’s and through established government and corporate programs to enable the effort.

In fact, we shouldn’t just hope our governments and leaders will do that; we should insist that they give us means to make our inclinations to help effective. We want and have a right to expect that where there has been recent partisan wrangling, our leaders will also develop Ms. Solnit’s community and together give priority to recovery for Houstonians. We ought to see them putting aside the recent toxic, polarized bickering about tax code restructuring, immigration, health care, the national debt ceiling, or government shutdown. Rediscovering our common national interest at the same time we help Houstonians get back on their feet? How cool could that be?

But there’s a second challenge to the vast majority of us who are spectators. Harvey and what we see on the screen every hour shocks us into realizing we’ve been grossly, inexcusably complacent about far worse suffering on far larger scales across our world and even here at home. We’ve become inured to the suffering across the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Turkey to Yemen to Syria to Libya to Nigeria. We shrug our shoulders at the oppression of the North Korean people and political dissenters in China by their leaders. We read about gang warfare across Central America and the thousands killed and hardly blink an eye. And we turn our backs on the rise of neo-Nazis, the continuing violence done to ethnic minorities, LGBT, and even women here in the United States. Even as we’re stunned by events in Houston, we realize to our shame that we’ve allowed ourselves to become anesthetized to these other abominations.

That’s where Ecclesiastes 7:3 comes in.  The world’s problems will not vanish overnight. But we needn’t allow ourselves to be desensitized to them.

May joy (that is, hope) come in the morning – for Houston’s suffering thousands upon thousands,  and for us all.

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