This afternoon on the drive home from work I spoke to a friend in Houston. I have been checking on him since two days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall. On the first day we spoke he told me he was trying to move his most important possessions to higher ground, something that in Houston, a city 35 feet (give or take) above sea level, might even mean “upstairs.” In his case it meant away from the condo where he lives near White Oak bayou and into a friend’s spare room.
Flooding is not new in Houston. It is in a low lying area with 2,500 miles of waterways, bayous that run like arteries out to the gulf. Rain can be torrential, the air can feel heavy and hot like it is hoarding all the moisture away from the land. Sometimes at night the air is so saturated it looks like cotton batting draped from streetlight to streetlight.
I have these images in my mind each time we speak: Bayous, humidity, streetlights.
With each conversation I search my memory for the places he talks about. It occurred to me today that his range has been getting smaller and smaller as the water has gotten higher and higher. It occurred to me that maybe he is getting his information about the flooding from the news, just like me. In my attempt to normalize his world I had pictured him driving around, checking things out like he was on some sort of field trip. A part of me wanted to believe it would all be ok, that it wasn’t that bad. So I didn’t have to feel it, feel the gravity of the situation.
The image in my mind changed today to my friend lying on another person’s couch, wondering what was happening to his home as the rain continued to fall and the water continued to rise.
As with any tragedy, the images from Harvey are striking. And with any tragedy it seems there are some folks that respond with judgement. “What do they expect? It’s a flood zone.” “If they would have evacuated they wouldn’t have to be rescued.” As if by judging they can distance themselves from the suffering they see. As if the world really can be divided into “them” and “us.” As if by judging, they are kept safe from the fact that tragedy is a great equalizer. It can happen to anyone, at any time.
And I get it. It almost physically hurts to look at some of the images. Kids crouched on kitchen counters, cattle up to their knees in water, drenched people clutching sodden possessions, wading down flooded interstates, dogs tied to porches and telephone poles and surrounded by water.
Tonight as I write this a new photo stream is coming up: major flooding in India, in Bangladesh. People holding goats above the water, clutching possessions, a father letting go of the body of a child into the flood because there was no dry place to bury him.
Suddenly the suffering in Texas and Louisiana, India and Bangladesh is not so far removed from one another.
One of my very favorite people, Brené Brown, also a Houston resident, posted an update on her page that has stuck with me since I read it a few days ago. She wrote: Our family has the resources to survive this. Many here will be devastated for years.
Texas. Louisiana. India. Bangladesh.
Yes, tonight as I write this I can hear my friend’s voice over the phone line a few hours ago in my head. “Danielle I’m just so exhausted,” he said. “I have to start all over again. I’ve lost nearly everything.” I could hear it in his voice, that hopelessness born of emotional exhaustion. The kind that makes seemingly simple things, like remembering to drink water, feel impossible.
This is compassion, I think. This is empathy. When we can look at the pictures and hear the stories and actually feel and be moved by the suffering. When we can hear the pain, exhaustion, hopelessness in someone’s voice and it drives us not away, but toward them instead. Texas, Louisiana, India, Bangladesh-it’s all right here inside us, the miles just an unimportant detail. We don’t have to keep ourselves from feeling it, we can be a part of it and serve in whatever way we are able, even if it means just bearing witness.
Yes, it hurts to look. Yes, it hurts to consider loss, to realize how close to it we really are.
Thich Nhat Hanh said it best:
“We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”
I, you, he, she, we. These are not true distinctions.