On Healing 9/5/2005: Disasters such as Katrina have a way of opening hearts

As we witness the devastation on the Gulf Coast, and see people suffering through unfathomable adversity, it’s impossible to imagine what they are experiencing. But it might be helpful to look at we are feeling.

I watched some news footage last week with my nephew. This is a man who can be pretty gruff, sarcastic and cynical – on the outside anyway. He said he had been riveted to the television since Katrina first hit land. As he watched television, I watched his face. It seemed to soften as it showed worry and compassion for the victims.

In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote that in adversity, one’s heart dilates. And that’s what I saw happening to my nephew. His heart dilated. Perhaps that’s what happens to us all when we witness unimaginable tragedy. Collectively, our hearts dilate.

We all know that feeling. It is one of openness and caring. When it happens, we experience selflessness, generosity and even love. And we no longer care about our small personal concerns. Somehow the argument with our spouse and the frustration at work don’t seem that important.

When the heart is dilated, we feel more connected to the world and to our lives. As humans, our instinct in the face of suffering is to open up. Even preschoolers will stop what they are doing and show concern when a playmate is suffering.

A dilated heart is an example of humanity at its best. Of course we have also seen examples of the opposite, as when certain people claimed that the devastation is a form of divine retribution.

And now plenty of evidence shows that when we act with compassion, our bodies’ natural antidepressants increase. In a culture where so many suffer a sense of insecurity and isolation, acts of selfless kindness help us feel more linked to the larger world.

This also happened after last year’s tsunami, when not only did the world open its collective heart, but two onetime political enemies – former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush – worked together to ease suffering.

We know great adversity is all around us.

The same day Katrina was pummeling the Gulf Coast, the Census Bureau reported that nearly 13 percent of U.S. residents had fallen below the poverty line. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 33 million people in this country are hungry, and more than one-third of them are children.

Just as it’s hard to imagine losing everything in a hurricane, it’s tough to fathom not knowing when the next meal will happen or where we can get medical care for our children. Because the suffering is so overwhelming, we could close our hearts and turn a blind eye. We could also do what the misguided do and blame the victims for their suffering.

Of course it’s overwhelming, but we are not responsible for ending suffering or feeding all of the hungry. If we just allow our hearts to dilate, we will no longer be able to do nothing.

Last year, I interviewed Betty Williams on my radio show. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her work in Northern Ireland. She and other Nobel Peace Prize laureates are touring the world now, setting up safe sanctuaries for vulnerable children.

When I asked her what people should do to help diminish suffering, she said: “I am not going to sit here and tell you what to do. When you open your door and walk out of your house, you will see what needs to be done. Just do something. Do anything.”

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