Tag Archives: adversity

The Human Side of Sandy

I lived in Hoboken, NJ, for 15 years during my late ’20s and 30s. It’s a mile-square city, a so-called bedroom community to Manhattan, and the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. It was also one of the most close-knit communities I’ve ever called home, full of people who still occupy a special place in my heart.

The last time I visited Hoboken was October 2001, when I returned to empty the apartment that I’d been subletting and pull up my roots for good. I’d been away for two years, and out of the country during the attacks on the World Trade Center. As I walked around Hoboken that week, I saw dozens and dozens of “Have you seen…?” fliers with desperate, handwritten appeals and the haunting faces of those who were likely buried in the rubble of the Twin Towers. The city felt bruised, sad…and surreal.

On October 30, 2012, my heart went out to Hoboken again as I saw arresting images of flooded streets, destroyed property and stranded residents in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. When I heard Mayor Dawn Zimmer crying out for help on CNN, I started to follow the situation on TV and Facebook.

Hoboken residents share their power with those needing a place to recharge

Hoboken residents share their power

What I saw next was a different kind of surge, as the beleaguered people of this small city began sharing their precious power and resources, opening their homes to moms with kids for extended play dates and movies with snacks. People in neighboring Weehawken offered their showers, couches, spare bedrooms, kitchens and vacant apartments to complete strangers who were suddenly homeless.

The Hoboken Facebook page became a place where people posted all kinds of urgent appeals and generous offers. Kids and adults came out to clean up homes, parks, streets and businesses. There were block parties with free food and activities for kids who couldn’t go to school. People were dropping in on isolated senior citizens while making trips to donate furniture, diapers and flashlights.

And help arrived from beyond the Garden State, too, as revealed in a post that said,  “Super amazing. Heritage Academy from Monterey, TN, sent up a bus of 59 students and teachers to assist in our efforts at the High School. They were a huuuge help! Thank you!”

Across the river, New York City was grappling with its own devastation and loss. Again. Just as they did on 9/11, so many resilient New Yorkers rebounded as quickly as they could and rose to the occasion. “When something like this happens, it’s as if  you’re suddenly in a small town,” said a friend of mine in upper Manhattan. “A lot of people here are housing friends and relatives and colleagues who lost their homes. There was so much worse destruction in some places that my friends downtown say they felt lucky that they only lost power. One of them joked, ‘It’s like I’m camping, except there are no trees.'”

Making the best of tragedy is what a lot of Americans are really good at. And compassion often comes biggest from the smallest of us. In Bullitt County, Kentucky, three hundred elementary school kids mailed their Halloween candy to the children of Hoboken last week. Their teacher reported that many of these children, who themselves receive public assistance, donated all of the candy they had. “One student told me that he’d only donated ‘the good stuff,'” she added.

That candy was distributed at yesterday’s Ragamuffin Parade, Hoboken’s annual Halloween event for kids and kids-at-heart that was delayed, but not destroyed, by Sandy.

Two weeks after this massive storm, too many people in New York and New Jersey are still without power. Thousands have lost everything they owned, and more than a hundred people lost their lives. I have officially closed down my personal complaint department for 2012, as I’m reminded every day to feel grateful my home, heat, electricity, running water and abundant food and clothing. For those of us who were unscathed by Sandy, Thanksgiving is a month-long celebration this year, and a chance to remember and help those who were not so lucky.


Bad News, Good News – The Gifts of Adversity

Heard the one about the Chinese farmer? According to the Taoists, he had a horse that ran away. A neighbor said, “Oh, that’s bad news,” and the farmer replied, “Good news, bad news, who can say?” The horse soon returned with another horse, which many labeled good news. The farmer again withheld judgment and gave the second horse to his son, who broke his leg when the animal threw him off. “That’s bad news,” clucked a sympathetic neighbor. “Good news, bad news, who can say?” the farmer predictably replied.

Days later, the emperor’s soldiers entered the village to round up able-bodied young men for war. The farmer’s injured son was spared, and the neighbors congratulated his dad upon hearing the “good” news.

You can guess what the farmer said, right? Well, I’m beginning to understand the wisdom of his philosophy, at least when it comes to adversity. I’ve learned that so-called bad news can sometimes lead to good.

Things like being turned down for a job or losing one, getting dumped by a lover or left by a spouse, and experiencing a life threatening illness or injury can sometimes lead us to more good than we ever would have imagined. Asking “What next?” “What can I learn?” or “What can I be grateful for?” in the wake of upsetting events has served me better than asking “Why me?” Positive psychology researchers call this benefit finding.

I tried to remember this two weeks ago, when my husband was in a fender-bender. As I took in the “bad” news over the phone, I silently expressed gratitude that no one was hurt and the car was okay. That in itself was progress for me—reaching for the good in a situation on the spot instead of having a meltdown. As it turns out, we’ll get some money to fix our car, which could use a little bodywork. Good news, in my book.

Four years ago, a different car accident resulted in injuries that allowed me to leave a career that I was no longer enjoying. The same thing happened with a panic attack in 1997. At the time of these events, I was too shaken to envision the positive outcomes that would follow. Both episodes introduced me to some talented healers, the accident led to a financial bonus, and the panic attack sent me on an emotional and psychological healing journey that gave birth to my current career.

The things we often label terrible and tragic can have hidden gifts. Sometimes they force us to grow our courage and commitment and call upon strength that we never knew we had. Sometimes they humble us enough to admit our vulnerability, ask for help, and accept it. Other times they catapult us out of our comfort zone and prompt us to make sorely needed changes that, left up to us, might never have happened.

I’m not saying there’s no room for tantrums or tears when things don’t go as we’d like them to. I’ve had my share of those and consider them healthy reactions to disappointment and loss.  But once the anger has cooled and the sadness has lifted, I think it’s important to work with the reality before us rather than waste time and energy lamenting, blaming and living in “coulda, woulda shoulda.”

Evidently, the tendency to make lemonade from lemons is hardwired in us.

Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, says that we humans have a “psychological immune system” that helps us to synthesize happiness even when we don’t get what we want. Gilbert says that our brains can assist us in finding the ultimate good in whatever happens, and that synthetic happiness is as real as the kind that comes when things go our way. His own story illustrates how not getting what we want can be a blessing. When he couldn’t get into the creative writing class that we wanted to take in college, Gilbert ended up finding his passion and acclaim in psychology. Today he’s a Harvard professor and a media star who gives TED talks.

And how did I stumble upon Mr. Gilbert’s work for this essay? While heading home from a visit with my family the other night, I encountered a horrendous seven-mile back up on the only road out of town. Rather than sit and stew, I turned the car around, went back to my parents’ house, ate some ice cream and read a good book. When I got back in the car a few hours later, there was Dan Gilbert on the radio, discussing the good news about bad news. Perfection.

If you have a story to share about the gifts of adversity, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, I wish you mostly good news and what my watercolor teacher calls “happy accidents.”

Kim Childs is a Certified Life and Career Coach specializing in Positive Psychology, creativity and spiritual development. Click here to learn more and schedule a free initial consultation in person or via phone or Skype.