I have been pondering for the last ten days what to say about the experience of Hurricane Sandy. I think I felt overwhelmed because I knew that my experience was not as bad as thousands of others in our area. My experience felt superficial somehow, as if I did not earn enough credit to have something to say about all of this. But what I realized these last couple of days is that although I cannot speak for places that were utterly devastated by this horrible storm, I can speak for what life has been life for the rest of us, tied to those who are suffering more while suffering ourselves.
As background, we lost power for seven days. We have a fireplace (although it took us several days to secure wood) and we had hot water. But we did not have heat, the ability to cook, or the other conveniences of electricity. We had filled our cars with gas before the storm, but we knew we had to be careful about the number of trips out of the house. We also have a three year old daughter. We had several trees fall on the property, one damaging the church, but mostly we were spared significant damage.
Over the last ten days, several reflections have occurred to me. First, I used to work with Habitat for Humanity, and in our work there, we told personal stories of homeowners to potential volunteers and funders. I remember telling stories of families whose only heat source was their gas oven, who could not afford their electric bill and just went without power, or whose children suffered in school because of poor heat, comfort, and nutrition at home. I told those stories and my heart broke as I imagined the faces of each of those homeowners. But I had never experienced those realities, especially as a parent. As we struggled this past week to warm our child by bringing her into our bed; as I slept by the dying fire (making sure to avoid accidents), realizing that although my body was warm, the frigid air around my head was keeping me awake; or as I found that despite my two layers of clothes, long robe, and a blanket, I still could not keep warm during the day, I began to see those Habitat stories in a whole new way. There are neighbors who suffer this pain everyday, and yet we are blind because they are hidden in homes we do not notice, in sections of town we do not frequent, or in coworkers whom we do not know well. Despite our suffering for seven days, or the continued suffering for people up to ten days so far, there are people who live this suffering everyday.
Second, there is a way in which the varied experiences of a disaster make you feel like that if you do not suffer in a particular way, your experience of suffering is not valid. You feel shallow or weak or insensitive for complaining if your experience is less burdensome than others. And in a way, I think that is appropriate. We should always be grateful for our blessings and recognize that there are many ways in which things could have been worse for all of us. But stifling our pain for the sake of honor others’ pain has begun to feel corrosive to me. Despite the fact that my suffering or even the suffering of my parishioners was milder compared to other areas of Long Island, our suffering is still hard. The experience of long periods of cold, of worrying about the health of yourself and your child who cannot stop coughing and wiping running noses, of worrying if the mental health benefits of getting out of the house are worth the anxiety of the uncertain gasoline situation, of feeling cut off from the rest of the world, of worrying about those whose suffering is worse, of being frustrated about not being able to reach those without power to see if they are okay – all of that takes a toll on the psyche. And even when we got power a week later, about half of my parishioners were still without power. So any sense that things just go back to normal is false. The frustration of just wanting to get back to work without the ability to get back to work can be overwhelming. It was not until the snow hit and the schools closed yet again that I realized how much of this emotion and anxiety I have been stuffing.
Finally, I have been struck by the overwhelming ways in which this storm has brought out the goodness in others. My parishioners have been running extension cords across the street to share power with others. I observed all of us talking to one another more – learning more of each others’ stories – caring more about the welfare of each other. People without power themselves have bent over backwards to make sure my family was okay. Friends and parishioners have taken us in for hot meals and for washing laundry or for simple camaraderie. People long to help others even when they are suffering. There is a sense of abundance in the face of devastation. There is joy watching a toddler find creative ways to entertain herself. And the outpouring of love from all over the region is even more overwhelming. I have felt like that wall that keeps us from sharing Christ with one another has been decimated, and Christ is found all around us as we love and care for one another.
This last week and a half has been an emotional rollercoaster, and the end is not necessarily in sight. I ask that you pray for one another. I ask that you seek and serve Christ in all persons. I ask that you love and give yourself grace the same way that you are loving and giving grace to others. And I ask that you remember the ways in which you are opening yourself to others and not to forget that new way of being when we finally do get back to “normal.”