Natural disasters help highlight relationships and interconnectedness in today's world
Our world has become connected in ways that a couple of decades ago could only have barely been imagined. Often this is taken primarily as a matter of technology, a matter of ease of getting information, a matter of the speed of effects being felt in distant places. Hurricane Sandy and its impact in the Northeast along with all the calls that were made beyond the storm show that our connected world has also created new patterns of relationships.
The work of a marriage and family therapist is often about problems that exist in significant relationships and ways to build strength into relationships. The relationships that arise from living in a connected world are very different and can even exist between people who do not even know each other. Communications I have been involved in about the storm show how these relationships have their own way of having an impact on us.
The first message I read after working overnight in an evacuation center was an alert from the city announcing that there was serious damage to a sister congregation in Manhattan. No real details but still my thoughts went out to them and at the same time I saw this as positive news about my own church. Note that I had not heard from anyone involved with that church, but yet I felt more connected to what was going on. Not long after this, a theology student in Buffalo also felt more connected to the storm and posted “Prayers go out to everyone who is being affected in New York City by the hurricane”. Why did I feel that he was trying to be too close to a situation that he was not really connected to?
On the 30th, I got the family message that reminded me that I had not reached back out to them. My sister wrote, “Just so you know there’s a whole group of Hoosier family and friends praying for your safety. Keep me or mom posted even with a quick text she says.” Things were too busy to reach out to them, but their relationship with me in some ways was making it as if they were partially present with me in New York. The next day, I did call my sister. Her post of “My daughter was really happy to talk to uncle Christopher L Smith tonight” did not key in to what was going on but began to tell a whole group of people who know where I live that I was okay. I made this more concrete by saying, “As was he. Good to have thoughts and prayers to those affected more severely by the storm here in NYC and throughout the large affected area.” However, this also began the need for daily calls to either my mother or my sister to give them updates on how things were going. I knew that this was something that was really important for them, especially when things continued to get worse in the area and another storm (Athena – making history in being the first named winter storm) threatened. On the other hand, it was hard at times to relate what was really going on. My relationship to Sandy-Athena was so different than theirs and in realizing that their experience was through our relationship, I also realized that my first person experience was so different than that of some of my fellow New Yorkers. I was in a situation where I could consider volunteering at a shelter to be in heat for the night when there were those there who had no other place to go.
Thinking back to 9/11, I also realized that there would be people out there who I would never think about who would be worried about how I was doing. Then it struck me – why not use our connected world to get the word out to these people too. For me, these are people that I do not regularly connect with and who might only be considered acquaintances. Yet, for many of them, I am the call that they have that connects them to this disastrous event. The relationship is far from symmetric. So I write, “Just an update from the metro New York area – I’m doing well – thanks for all who have inquired, thoughts, prayers, etc. The church is well. The area will take a while to get back to normal but a lot of good has been seen already.” The response was a brief flood of greetings – including from people I would never have thought to reach out to.
As time goes along, people are pulled away from being connected to the unfolding saga in the greater New York area but others are drawn into a deeper relationship with what is going on. This yields current dichotomies such as:
- “I wanted to let you know that people here are asking me about Sandy and how people were impacted. They are truly concerned about all of you and, while they haven’t said it, I know that all of you who are impacted are in their daily prayers. They honestly don’t care the faith of the people who were impacted, they just care that people lost lives, dear ones, and homes.” An American in Palestine
- “having a rum and coke for my mom…because I don’t do fruit drinks” Midwest Pastor
Even in New York, people respond in different ways:
- Some need to be able to take a break to be able to sustain their efforts, but yet feel support form the connections all the different relationships provide: “I need to go off the grid for the night and decompress…God bless each and every one of you for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers.” New York Pastor
- Others look at bigger issues or even attempts to bring humor back into everything that is going on: “How can we have a ‘winter storm warning’ when it is autumn? Shouldn’t it be an ‘autumn storm that has winter-like temperatures, precipitation and wind’ warning?” Connecticut Psychologist
- Others realize that there are justice issues and that there is a lot of difference in our experiences of the recovery: “Lots of people still sitting in unheated houses in the dark around here, long after neighbors (like me) have had power restored. Not fun when it’s snowing.” New Jersey Pastor
- Even others are getting angry at what is going on especially as they feel more and more isolated from the positive directions others are facing. And of course, there are those who are trying to find ways of getting ahead in the new realities “I wonder if I should use my nurse’s id to jump the gas line” New York Nurse.
We do live in a connected world. This world brings with it all sorts of new types of relationships, including ones that are much more significant for one side than the other. This makes it more important for us to think about who we need to call after the storm. Doing so, and keeping the relationships in perspective, can help us maintain peace and wholeness in our lives.