Recent tragedies have tested the limits of our caring. In a month’s time, we witnessed Hurricane Harvey’s deluge of 50 inches of rainfall cause cataclysmic flooding in Houston. Harvey destroyed almost 40,000 homes and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Only days later, Hurricane Irma devastated southern Florida, leaving millions without power and destroying swaths of buildings and homes. In quick succession, a magnitude 7.1 quake brought death and destruction to Mexico, and Hurricane Maria wasted Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to an unparalleled extent. Finally, the cruelly demented Las Vegas shooter murdered nearly 60 people and injured over 500 others.
Each of these tragedies is worthy of our sorrow, heartfelt thoughts and, where possible, our help.
The media are saying very little about Harvey or Irma now, although those victims are still suffering as they begin to put their lives back together. This makes sense because there is only so much airtime; mucking out homes is hardly news. Moreover, the worst natural disasters naturally take a back seat to the twisted, incomprehensible acts of a well-to-do mature shooter who methodically shot some 600 of his fellow beings. But media priorities ought not to determine our priorities. People with no camera on them suffer as much as those on TV.
Notwithstanding the horrible, even unprecedented, nature and scale of these tragedies, they came so quickly and in such magnitude that they threaten to overwhelm our ability to care. We certainly can’t care about everything all the time. Yet how much we care about those who suffer reflects our most elemental priorities.
Our caring “muscle,” like any other muscle, has finite energy; therefore, we can and should learn to direct our caring to the more important things and let go of unimportant things.
We can expand our ability to care by using it more frequently and by finding more people to serve. Mother Teresa forsook everything in her life to serve Jesus and his neediest lambs in the Calcutta slums. Father Damien spent his last 20 years in complete devotion to the sufferers of Hansen’s disease, known formerly as leprosy, on Molokai. He finally contracted the disease and died from it. While these saintly people define the ultimate in caring, most people spend their time in more mainstream pursuits like working and caring for their families. But it behooves us all to learn to care deeply about something outside our own world, to find someone who needs our help.
We can expand our caring not only in the amount of time and resources we spend but also in the quality or depth of our caring. When faced with a tragedy, many of us say we will keep the victims in our thoughts and prayers. Sometimes we may say that casually without any real commitment to do anything. And does it really do any good to keep someone in our thoughts? At a minimum, conscious empathy and silently reaching out to victims certainly softens the well-wisher.
Compassion’s reach is multiplied immensely by demonstrating that caring — even in the smallest of ways. When death strikes the home of our friends or neighbors, most of us hold back so as not to impinge on the family’s privacy. Our family no longer feels that way after my wife’s 15-year-old brother’s tragic death. That afternoon, we sat in a stupor, unable to make sense of our great loss. But we yet recall the tender souls who came with love, a hug, a meal or a card. One great man unforgettably brought the family soothing spiritual comfort. Caring has real consequences; caring changes things for the better.
Because we have limited resources for caring and serving, let us offload those things unworthy of our care and attention. Almost everyone holds in their hearts and minds emotions that help no one, especially themselves.
The ultimate sign of caring is to act on it. Our service need not be big or splashy or even defined. Sharing our condolences, good wishes and love with family, friends, neighbors and other victims of tragedy is good for them and good for us. The more expressive and tangible, the better.