“It has been raining again. I have been indoors, meditating on the shortcomings of life” is the opening line of a lesser-known poem “Reforming Oneself” by American writer and attorney, Max Ehrmann. This week as it poured in Houston, seemingly without end, we stared at our electronic screens, equally transfixed and horrified by the rapidly rising waters and the destruction and upheaval wrought by the latest epic natural disaster. With Hurricane Harvey, indeed “everything is bigger in Texas.”
One could not help but notice the fortitude and forbearance of those being rescued and the quiet reassurance and resolution of the countless unsummoned volunteers who came to their aid. Some saved women, soaked and shivering, smiled bravely for the CNN cameras from the small skiffs steered by stoic souls, and the steady shower may have swept tears aside as the evacuees offered simple thanks for being alive. In the spirited words of native son, the singer B. J. Thomas, “Raindrops keep falling on my head, But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red, Crying’s not for me, ’cause, I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining.”
Lugging their drenched dogs, stunned children and pitifully small garbage bags, others waded through waist high dirty waters to face the unknown, suddenly bereft of cars, homes and all of the material possessions that define us. In overwhelmed shelters, harried workers still reached out to touch, hug and comfort victims left traumatised and crying by their harrowing experiences of the category four hurricane.
“I wish there were more kindly persons in the world,” Ehrmann wrote. “Our competitive life develops selfishness and unkindness. I am determined to do something about it. I cannot hope to convert many persons. To convert one person, I shall do well. I will begin with the person I know best – myself,” he said in the verse.
I had just started high school when I saw my first piece by Ehrmann. On a single photocopied sheet, it was tacked on to the wall in an obscure corner of the classroom. The much-loved 1927 prose poem, the “Desiderata” Latin for “Things Desired” drew a group of us curious to read, marvel and recite. “Go placidly amid the noise and haste,/and remember what peace there may be in silence./As far as possible without surrender/be on good terms with all persons./ Speak your truth quietly and clearly;/ and listen to others,/ even the dull and the ignorant;/they too have their story.”
Before long, we had adopted and adapted Ehrmann’s lovely lines into our lives. Spy a teacher on her stealthy way and we would resort to a quickly abridged version of the first bar so that by the time she arrived, our class would be seated, still and silent, with the beatific smiles of angels. When friends fell out, we would soulfully declare, naturally within easy earshot, “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, /they are vexations to the spirit.” This week we were reminded once again that “many persons strive for high ideals; /and everywhere life is full of heroism.”
Desiderata are also objectives considered highly longed for in life. A desideratum is a value sorely lacking and earnestly required. According to Dictionary.com it originates from the 1600s in the merged equivalent referring to “sīdus” a heavenly body or constellation, and is also the root of common words like “desire.”
Scientists have warned for years that even a moderately powerful hurricane could devastate the Houston/Galveston region. A review by the Rice University-based Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) indicated in 2010 such an event could endanger thousands of lives and cripple the Houston Ship Channel, home to one-quarter of the country’s refineries.
As experts continue to argue about the role of climate change in the severity of the storm, a few individuals sniped on social media about the ironies, given the ruling administration’s strident denials of the mainstream scientific community’s views, topped by the heavily-criticised decision to pull the United States (U.S) out of the related United Nations’ International Convention.
From Monday last, in extraordinary scenes, a motley crew of civilians feeling compelled to help, doggedly set out across the swamped streets of Houston in their various kayaks, dinghies, fishing and air boats, bearing courage, wetsuits and life jackets. “No one sent them and no one paid them – yet for the sake of people they had never met, they exposed themselves to pelting rain and ominous warnings that Hurricane Harvey, now a tropical storm, would unleash fresh mayhem,” the Guardian wrote in admiration.
“Here was the America of the ideal: one nation, indivisible. A republic of citizens looking out for each other. No politics or polarisation. No fake news or social media bubbles. A crisis all could see, and a response all wanted to be part of.” The British newspaper wryly questioned how long would it last since divisive President Donald Trump was due in Texas. “But for one day at least, there was unity among the rescuers and rescued, a coalition of races and income groups. And there was, remarkably, calm,” the Guardian marvelled.
Researchers suggest that reaching out to others and building a sense of community can boost recovery efforts, and help build an enduring framework for the future. In a landmark 2008 study on Disaster Mythology and Fact after Hurricane Katrina, a group of specialists studied ten classic misconceptions.
Myth Number Four considered whether disasters bring out the worst in some persons, who looted, rioted and carried out hijackings when New Orleans was hit in 2005. The researchers found that while there may be isolated cases of antisocial behaviour, most people respond positively and generously.
“There were many more reports of altruism, cooperativeness, and camaraderie among the affected population” their report noted. “The overall cooperative, prosocial, and altruistic individual and community response following Hurricane Katrina was similarly observed after the Asian tsunami of December 2004, and the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London, and may have been reflected in the transient 40% to 60% drop in the homicide rate in New York City after September 11, 2001.”
The account pointed out that residents “invited someone to stay in their home; hotels housed displaced families, extended families, and pets; and nearly every large shelter created a clinic run by local doctors and nurses.” At one hospital, “people of different races, old and young, patients and providers, both rich and poor, held hands and prayed for rescue.”
Contrary to the view that affected populations respond with shock, helplessness, and overall passivity in an emergency, the tendency toward social affiliation leads to a multicultural dedication to the common good, the study found. This is expressed in altruism, camaraderie, and solidarity among victims, enabling them to develop fresh strength and resiliency.
“With an increasing sense of shared plight, a desire to help predominates. The greater the danger sensed by people in their familiar environment, the more likely they are to strengthen their attachments with family, friends, and neighbours, and to develop new attachments with people sharing the same environment, overriding traditional differences and barriers among people such as race, age, and socioeconomic status.” This crowd behaviour model postulates that altruism and self-sacrifice occur when a common identity emerges among people in the same predicament, even when great risk is involved.
Contrary to another misconception, disasters do have profoundly adverse effects and major economic consequences that may take years to overcome. A return to normalcy seldom occurs quickly, the researchers warned, adding developing countries and even relatively impoverished and economically precarious areas in generally prosperous states can deplete most of their financial and material resources in the immediate post-impact phase. For the southcentral U.S it will be a long, costly and decisive journey.
Whatever our desires, some are all too real and basic like the understandable yearning for a dry bed, a warm meal, a safe place and words of comfort. Several may now be unattainable, be it regional and world peace with the increasingly ominous grumblings in Pyongyang, the internecine warfare in Syria and Yemen, the terrible plight of refugees, the escalating Venezuelan struggle, and the insidious threat of ISIS and terrorism. Earlier this month, over 1,000 people are believed to have died from the mudslide and flooding that slammed Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.
Yet as we saw this week, in a stirring example to our own long divided nation, calamities can bring out the best as well. As a most vulnerable country with the bulk of its population concentrated in a low-lying swathe along the Atlantic coast and at the mercy of rising seas, Guyana has obvious cause to worry and a lot to learn. Hopefully, when the time comes we will not be found wanting.
ID recites the Desiderata, urging “in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world” so “Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”