The world over, there are disasters, man-made or not, that shake our communities to the deepest levels. Many are hurt, some tragically lose their lives, many suffer from post-traumatic stress, yet, over and over, we see something happen, an embodiment of hope. In the face of disaster, survivors get together, make time and help one another regardless of their differences. It is beautiful and inspiring.
In South Africa, a society divided among so many lines, riots and looting traumatised the country a couple of weeks ago. But as soon as the worst was over, people from all backgrounds, belonging to all faiths, of any skin colour, got together to clean up, feed and help those who lost everything, and collaborated while in “normal times” most would have had reservations motivated by lack of integration and diversity, and probably a bit of prejudice.
What is it, that a disaster brings forth in us? Where does all that kindness and compassion come from?
Disasters, small and personal, or big and communal, seem to change us, at least for a window of time. When something life-threatening happens, we lose the hubris of our righteousness and realise that our backs are all against the same wall. When having to survive, we stop worrying about who is right or wrong. Because it really doesn’t matter.
As parents, most of us try to resolve sibling disputes by not engaging into the details of who was right or wrong (a.k.a. who started it), but rather that something bad has happened, or someone is upset. We try to convey to our kids that that the priority should be to make it right, not to lay blame. Yet, in the comfort of a life where disasters can be ignored until they happen to us, we are awfully quick at readopting convictions that don’t matter. We go back to behaving like we tell our children not to, getting outraged at opinions and beliefs different from our own.
But when we lose that comfort, solidarity comes to the front. I think this is really who we are. When we don’t have a choice, we do what we can, and what we can do, is care. We are really good at it, and that’s all we can really do. That’s why we made it this far, on an individual level, and as a species.
That’s why I think all the fuss, the power struggles and conflicts are the dark side of the veneer of a comfortable life where, for some reason, survival isn’t the priority anymore, or life is taken for granted. It comes with the illusion of being in control. We are not.
I also think that kindness, compassion and solidarity are all within us, but for some reason we hide them under layers of priorities that don’t stand a chance in the face of equalising forces like disasters, life-threatening disease, loss and grief.
I do believe that if we keep those experiences of compassion at the front of our minds, and make an effort to remember them, we are able to see when they happen, in fact every day. This can help us stick to being kind, and work at becoming better humans all the time, less blinded by judgement and less busy ranking whose life is more important than who else’s.
We have heard calls for Gift of the Givers, an incredible organisation, to run our country, but we should not confine compassion to the realm of charities. Compassion is not charity, it is survival. We see it over and over again, each time disaster strikes.
In fact, every day, every front-line healthcare worker is an embodiment of compassion. The nursing profession is compassion developed as a system in our societies. Same for teachers, police, fire brigades and disaster relief. Yes, those are some of the least well rewarded professions. This is not new, but it remains amazing: we have managed to organise and institutionalise compassion.
So let’s take a minute to realise this: we can build compassion into our systems.
Let’s give a moment to re-prioritise and take one away from getting upset at what someone posted on social media.
Let’s give a moment to watch how we model adulthood and take one away from judging others.
Let’s live life around giving, not taking.
Let’s remember that wall that all our backs are against, the great common denominator, and remember that by just trying to be kind, we are less alone, whatever happens.
We’ve done it before. We can do it again. Let’s not need a disaster to remind us.