Tag Archives: doing our best

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.


Cutting Slack, Doing Our Best

In the past year I’ve heard from two friends who were disappointed in me because I didn’t meet their expectations or show up in the ways they wanted me to. In one case the friendship was already fading and I took the opportunity to own up and disengage. The other friend’s accusations were harder to hear and laced with anger, but I tried to have compassion for the fact that she was going through an incredibly difficult time.  I also acknowledged that, even when my actions fall short, I try my best to be there for people I care about, not to mention occasional strangers in need.

But the lessons didn’t stop there. A few days after that upsetting conversation I read a passage from author Wayne Dyer in his daily Everyday Wisdom calendar:

“Instead of judging others as people who ought to be behaving in certain ways, see them as reflecting a part of you, and ask yourself what it is you are ready to learn from them.”

And there it was. These friends were holding up a big ol’ mirror to me, and it reflected something I didn’t want to see, namely, my own tendency to be hard on people when they fail to meet my expectations.

I used to be a champion grudge holder, and I still harbor resentments against a few key players in my life. I’m praying for guidance with those, and always hoping for a shift. The good news is that when new resentments crop up I catch them pretty quickly, recalling the words of author Malachy McCourt, who once said that, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Indeed. All the energy I expend being judge and jury against my perceived wrongdoers (from that person who never returned my emails, to those who’ve rejected my precious friendship, to the people who didn’t acknowledge my thoughtfulness, value, etc.) is energy I’m taking away from my own life. It keeps me in a very unattractive “victimy” state, too, which is super unpleasant to feel and rarely a source of inspired action.

So here’s a radical thought: What if I imagine that we’re all doing the best we can with what we know?  Walking around with that kind of assumption, I’d certainly cut a lot more people a lot more slack, starting with my husband.

Since arriving in the United States to start a new life with me, my husband has faced innumerable challenges and obstacles, not to mention serious slights and heartbreaks as a proud African immigrant trying to make his way in this culture. Add to these stressors a wife who tends to point out his shortcomings (for his own good, of course), and you’ve got a man who’s often behind the eight ball. One of his favorite mantras is “I’m doing the best I can.”

A few months ago I attended a weekend workshop for women who want to have more satisfying relationships with men. We learned a lot about winning strategies for dealing with the opposite sex from our female instructor, but the most poignant moment came at the end of the workshop, when we heard from a panel of real, live men. The final question to these brave guys was, “If you had a megaphone, what message would you shout for all women to hear?” One answer that pierced my heart came from a white, successful, upper middle class man going through a divorce: “I’m doing the best that I can!”

The demands of this modern culture are squeezing the life out of so many people, and we’re all doing our best to try and keep up. Last year I got all bent out of shape because a girlfriend hadn’t replied to my calls and emails for a while. When she finally did I learned that she’d been privately grappling with a cancer diagnosis. Likewise, I once got testy with a student who showed up chronically late for my classes, only to learn that her husband was coming home chronically late from work to watch the kids—on the one night that my student had to herself. I’m humbled and shaken awake by these kinds of revelations.

Like death and taxes, disappointment in relationships is 100% guaranteed in this life. It’s what we do in response that matters. If we want forgiveness, compassion and understanding, we have to give it. I suggest starting with ourselves, by the way, because most of us are the least forgiving there. And I know that when I cut myself slack for my own human failings, I see others through a kinder, gentler lens.