Mind Matters — Dolphins and Roses

In October, I traveled to New Orleans under the auspices of SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an arm of Health and Human Services) to work with first responders who had become homeless due to the ravages of Katrina. Just recently, I returned from Mississippi where I again went to work with residents who had lost so much.

New Orleans in October felt like how I would imagine a war zone after battle. Eerily quiet with traffic lights not working and army trucks in the street. Amidst the brokenness and debris there, I saw roses blooming along the road. A sign of hope, of new life, I thought.

Going to Pascagoula, Mississippi, in February was a different experience and yet the same. Again I was sent to a cruise ship where evacuees were being housed. Where, in the fall, our team was to help people re-create their lives with their families in the cramped quarters of a cruise ship, now our efforts were to help the residents transition from the ships back to land living, such as it is. What was unfamiliar and overwhelming in the fall had become a place of security in late winter. Families were now obliged to depart the ark, and make yet another new beginning—mostly headed to FEMA trailers, either to be parked on their land or in trailer “parks”. This, of course, is not the end of the road either, given that folks won’t be able to—nor would they desire to—live in FEMA trailers indefinitely. So, more change is inevitable.

Just as the roses blooming became for me a sign of hope in New Orleans, dolphins became that symbol in Mississippi, as they gracefully swam up the brackish river where the ship was docked.

The Mississippi ship had become a haven for a variety of people, both poor and affluent and in between: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian American, young and old. In effect, all were in the “same boat”.

I had the opportunity to attend a Sunday service at a local Catholic church. The visiting priest (from Illinois), with much emotion in his sermon, reiterated that theme of “everybody is in the same boat”. The story behind his visit was poignant in itself. The predominantly African American Catholic Church had been destroyed by Katrina; the predominantly white Catholic Church had been damaged—we stood on bare concrete floor and sat in borrowed chairs—pews and carpeting were ruined in the flooding. The visitor came to lend a helping hand to the destroyed church community for a week while the pastor of that church went to the Illinois parish to preach. The result of the storm brought people together in new ways as the visitor reminded the combined congregants that they were all in the same boat and that their stories were not of being victims but of having resilience. It was a rousing sermon that the heartfelt music of the gospel choir underscored. As I headed back to the ship along the streets of the town of Pascagoula, passing all the houses with trailers in yards, I tried to keep the message of that service with me: “We are all in the same boat, not victims but resilient survivors.”

It is so easy for us as humans to forget or deny the suffering of others once the TV footage has passed. In a sense, it is a way of coping. However, part of the resilience of surviving comes from a belief that others care. Our care and support of others when they are suffering and in need is part of the healing. We human beings really do need each other to care for each other. Ironically, the care does not make us more needy or helplessly dependent, but in fact gives us the sense that we matter and if we feel we matter we can feel better about ourselves and our situation and move from victimhood to resilient survivor.

Over a hundred miles of coastline (roughly equivalent to the entire coast of New Jersey) has been destroyed. What once were towns are now the vestiges of pilings. A vibrant, musical city is a shadow of itself. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected. Of course it is not over. And, this horrific disaster is just the tip of the iceberg of global suffering. So what to do? Celebrate life in the present moment and be grateful for whatever blessings you can count, including flowers blooming and dolphins swimming, remembering all the while that your care matters.