Suprisingly, my new town has a lot to teach me about healing. The pain of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago invariably enters the scene in the first 10 minutes of getting to know someone. The long-reaching effects of that storm can pop up at any point in conversation.
"Honey," my neighbor turned to his wife, "remember that table we used to have? Where did that ever go?"
"It got Katrina-ed" She answered, nonchalantly.
I've met more people in the last month who have lost literally everything, than I have in my entire previous life. And the thing that's caused me no small amount of amazement, is the good nature and willingness to build a new life that so many have demonstrated. Our next-door neighbors are a retired couple in their 80s who have only lived in their house for the past several years: their original home was completely submerged seven years ago. On Sunday, when we were warned that Isaac, until that point lurking with hidden purpose in the Gulf, was officially headed our way, I asked him what he planned to do. He gave me an animated meteorological demonstration of the varying scenarios that could happen in the last few days. I prompted him again, "So, will you stay and wait it out, or leave?"
"Well," he suddenly seemed a little sheepish, "you know, we lost everything in the last storm. I don't feel concerned about the wind, but the prospect of rising water...well, it makes me feel a little...nervous."
I glanced around his living room. So beautifully furnished. Smiling faces of grandchildren framed on the wall. Tasteful furniture, but obviously new. No heirloom pieces or sentimental antiques that you would expect to adorn the house of a couple of that age. It struck me that he and his wife were amazingly brave to attempt to make another house a home, not a mile from where the house they raised their children was destroyed. Why didn't they leave bitterly, decrying that fate had stolen their beautiful lives? Why didn't they live in a house with just the basic necessities, fearful that if they pour themselves into rebuilding, even that could be for naught because the next storm could erase it all again? Why didn't they say, "We're old. We shouldn't have to think about starting a new life now."?
Hurricane Isaac, seven years to the day after Katrina, headed straight for him and it just made him feel a little...nervous?
I still have moments, when the memories of my own small losses are jogged, when what I feel is closer to fury. It's so reflexive to say, "This shouldn't have happened!" It takes me awhile to get to the point where I can say, "Well, it did happen. So, now what?"
I have learned from the people of New Orleans that when you leave around too many memorials to your loss, it's called Blight, and it breeds more destruction. Better to just clean it up and use it as a catalyst towards making your new life more meaningful.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about the injunction in this week's parsha to not hate the Egyptian, "because you were a stranger in his land." What an odd reason to furnish when commanding them not to hate. Pointing out the dysfunctional past relationship is supposed to fill one with affection? He states beautifully,
Biblical ethics is based on repeated acts of role-reversal, using memory as a moral force. In Exodus and Deuteronomy, we are commanded to use memory not to preserve hate but to conquer it by recalling what it feels like to be its victim. “Remember” – not to live in the past but to prevent a repetition of the past.
If it can be applied to relationships where you were on the receiving end of injustice, surely it can be applied to unfair life circumstances. What a beautiful response: instead of saying, "I've been hurt, so I have the right to remain in my hurt and if I lash out at others I'm justified in it," to say, "I've been hurt, and now it's my responsibility to create something in the world that is the opposite of that pain I've received."
If I've received destruction, I'll find something to rebuild.
If I've received rejection, I'll make sure that I accept.
If I've received disappointment, I'll give someone hope.
Being surrounded by this incredible attitude, I was able to face the approaching Storm with complete calm. Surrounding me was evidence that even if everything was lost, you can chose to just start over and build something again. And even though Katrina has left her mark indelibly on New Orleans, the re-builders I've met, with their resilience and faith, are leaving an even greater mark