Haiti. Earthquake. Devastation. Response.
We could almost say it's an incomprehensible catastrophe. Except that we're all forced to comprehend the images we'd rather not see (but can't stop watching), the reports we'd rather not hear (greedy for the next sound bite to illuminate the scope of humanitarian response), and the as-yet-uncounted thousands who are right smack in the middle of the catastrophe. The nearly instantaneous, all-media access to global events forces not only those immediately affected by it, but also the entire world, to comprehend the devastation.
Those directly involved must respond. Viscerally. Their responses are immediate, physical, meaningful and without premeditation. They are life-saving measures. I can't imagine there's much thinking involved. It must be purely fear, hope and adrenaline driving the living forward. Forcing them to comprehend the incomprehensible.
For the rest of the watching, waiting world, we gnash our collective teeth, wring our collectively concerned hands, discuss how fast the U.S. is or isn't responding. We analyze, we discuss, we "oh" and "ah" in shock, we chastise governments for doing too little, too late. We internalize the sound bites and the media blitz and then out of our feelings of necessity we offer money to various organizations promising to give aid to the victims. This is how we try to comprehend the incomprehensible and assuage our guilt--subconscious guilt that we are relieved to not be on the receiving end of such a catastrophe.
There certainly seems to be a need within our collective humanity to assist during disasters. Long, ago in early human groups, we would have only known about relatively immediate disasters--those close in both proximity and relation. Therefore we would have been forced to respond in order to preserve our own lives or the lives of our family-group or tribe. So perhaps, from a biological perspective, it makes sense that we desire to offer some type of assistance in the face of disaster, even when, seemingly, it has nothing to do with us.
Today I was driving around my town, discovering streets I'd never been on before. The radio was tuned, for a while, to NPR like usual. I had a trunk full of bagged lunches and hot dinners and a map of my route drawn in blue ballpoint pen sitting next to me on the seat. The midday show was, of course, talking about the impossible chaos, panic and death in Haiti. Before I left my house, friends and acquaintances were posting updates on Facebook about how they felt regarding the devastation and to what groups they recommended giving money. I admit I felt a little odd that I didn't want to run right out and donate money to a charity because of the earthquake. It just didn't feel like enough to me. It wouldn't make me feel as if I'd really helped. How would I know who my measly contribution really helped? Or did it just pay for some stamps to send out letters asking for more donations? Did it just pay to alleviate my subconscious survivor's guilt?
It being my very first time delivering meals, I had to turn around a couple times after missing roads and/or driveways, despite my map. (I didn't know so many of the roads in Springfield were without signage. Who do we think we are? Boston?) Finally I pulled into my first stop. I opened my trunk and pulled out a brown-bagged lunch and a dinner from the hot bag--kept warm with an oven-heated piece of soapstone. My trunk smelled like a mobile cafeteria. I walked up to the door, gave a knock for formality's sake. I turned the knob and let myself in to a kitchen I'd never seen before, belonging to an elderly woman I'd never met until this moment.
"Hi, there! Meals on Wheels. I've got your food here. How are you?" I set the packages on her small kitchen table and noticed all the funny chotchkes she had arranged so perfectly around her home. It didn't smell like I thought it would. It didn't smell like the elderly. It just smelled like a home.
"Oh. Thank you so much! How wonderful. Oh, but it's cold out there, isn't it? You've got the right idea with your hat and mittens though! Broke my hip, ya know. I'll be better when I don't have to use this thing anymore." She directed her last comment dismissively to the walker waiting patiently in front of her. "Thanks so much for the food. Maybe I'll see you again?"
"I'll be seeing you next Thursday, probably. Enjoy your food. Stay warm." I said. I shut her doors tightly against the cold and hopped back into my car, surprised at how satisfying it felt to do such a simple thing for someone in my community. On the radio they were still talking about the disaster in Haiti. On the map, I located the residence of the next person on my list of about 10 people. I backed out of the driveway and shut off the radio.