Sunday, September 17, 2017

"800-year flood": Crisis and the real-life value of virtue

Here in Houston, we are still in recovery mode. There is an often-quoted number in our local conversations: some commentator has estimated that rain on that scale is a once-in-800-years event for our area. (I hope that means I've paid my dues.) As a pass-time between cleanup, repair, or volunteering stints, we trade stories of floods and rescues, clearing out homes, and waiting in the expectation that some day the garbage collection services will actually make an impact on the curbside debris piles. The standard greeting has become "How did you do in the storm?"

It has been interesting to see the different reactions to a catastrophe of this magnitude. I know someone who had over four feet of water in her home, and calmly waited her turn for boat-rescue, having changed into her swimsuit. I know someone who did not get water in her home, and was so overcome with anxiety that she was vomiting from the stress. (No, neither one of those is me. For my own part, during the worst of it, I was blissfully asleep. If worse came to worst, I'd rather start well-rested. Though the second night, once it became clear what we were up against and the roads were already impassably flooded, I'd packed a "just in case" bag with a couple of changes of clothing, and placed it on top of a chair where it would stay dry longer.)

It has been interesting to see different reactions to all the work that needs to be done. Some see an opportunity to remodel, some see an opportunity to help, some see an opportunity to make a quick dollar flipping flooded houses. And some are just quietly grateful that it wasn't them. Almost all of the people working at the shelters, distribution centers, and meal prep centers have a genuine compassion for those who were badly flooded. I have only met one person at a city-run distribution center who had an attitude other than compassion: the attitude was fear that we would be unable to help some people, leading to anger at those who tried to take more than the very modest limit. Fear and anger can make it tricky to enforce limits humanely and with respect.

Through it all, the genuine, down-to-earth value of virtue has become clear to me:
  1. Hope is not merely shallow wishful thinking. Those who work from hope instead of fear behave in more rational ways, and less self-destructive ways, during a crisis.
  2. Compassion is the most motivating force in a time of need. Compassion has moved an incredible number of people here locally to stand beside each other in our time of need.
  3. Kindness makes a difference. When the need is great, it becomes plain that even the simplest actions can help. Almost everyone has it in them to be a hero, when the opportunity presents itself.
  4. Fellowship is indispensable. None of us gets through this alone. Community also forms naturally when people get together.
I have seen more hope, compassion, kindness, and fellowship these last few weeks than I have seen in a long time. It's not that they were absent before, but the scale of these has had to grow to fill the size of the need.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The still, small voice of God

God came through earthquake, wind, and fire to Moses at the mountain. I expect most people who will read this know that story, and this one too: when Elijah took refuge there again, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. There was a mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the mighty wind. There was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. (Some people seem to like the earthquake, wind, and fire approach. But it's not the only one.) There was a still, small voice of calm. God was in that voice. (Elijah recognized God's voice. Someone who knew less of God's ways might have tried to give some sort of meaning to the earthquake, wind, and fire, and even claim to be speaking for God.)

Why would the Almighty be gentle? We misunderstand power if we can ask that. There is power in calm. There is a time for a voice that is not raised. There is a time -- it seems about now -- when we have all had enough of earthquake, wind, and fire to last a long time.

Bless the Lord, whose voice also creates calm.

Monday, September 04, 2017

For The Record: What Can We Predict?

I've long noticed, living in southern Texas, that it doesn't snow often. I've also long noticed, living in southern Texas, that when it does snow, it often happens in the winter just following a hurricane. So we just had a hurricane, and here comes winter. Is that enough to predict snow this particular winter here in southern Texas? My experience leads me to expect snow, even though it's rare here.

Some things are more predictable than the weather. One is that disasters, oddly, bring out the best in the people who go through them together. The basic compassion of shared humanity is in full bloom, and all the petty divisions disappear for a time. The just-drained neighborhoods (the backdrop for newscasts of daring boat rescues a week ago) are now filled with hundreds of extra cars: people who came to help tear out wet sheet-rock, pull up wet carpet, and move wet furniture out of the homes. The too-crowded streets have church relief trucks passing out sandwiches and water to people they never met, who are too grateful and too hungry to turn it down. I saw one relief truck get nearly mobbed in a neighborhood that is within a few miles of the rain gauge that set the new national record, and one young woman nearly brought to tears by some watermelon after a week of eating cold dry goods or things from a can. In some places the cleaner debris becomes a makeshift picnic-table: a door set across the washer and dryer out by the curb. And everyone has more friends and neighbors now than when we started.

It makes me oddly optimistic. Even the apocalypse doesn't seem entirely bad, from a certain angle. It's not that the predictions of doom and gloom have been entirely wrong, just that they leave out the power of compassion.