They say a recession is when your neighbor loses his job, and a depression is when you lose yours. Natural disasters seem to work the same way, eliciting empathy in proportion to their proximity.
Maybe it’s seeing your own city’s name in the corner of the screen, while the weatherman points to a map where a red mass is rubbing against a green mass. And that rubbing and the nine-point-five on the BTI (what’s a BTI?) means tornadoes. And the whole thing is moving toward that corner of the screen at…60 miles an hour. And that corner of the screen is…60 miles away. And that means it’s here in…60 minutes. Or will it turn?
Maybe it’s those other city names on the screen, some you’ve seen on a city limits sign, some you’ve seen on an interstate sign, some that sound so far-fetched (there’s a Margaret in Alabama? I mean, a place named Margaret?) they might not appear on any signs. Some have stronger associations in your mind, like the guys from Euharlee and Taylorsville who worked with you at Boy Scout camp, and that troop from Lindale that spent a week there every summer. Or the Alabama football game you saw in Tuscaloosa, or the prep games you watched at Ringgold High School’s stadium.
Maybe it’s the familiarity of the cities on the screen when the images of the unfolding disaster, caught on video, appear. Not that you’ve spent any more time in Forestdale, Ala., than in Fukushima, Japan. But in the images from these cities — those buildings cowering before the towering gray funnel, those convenience stores and burger joints flattened like trod-upon matchboxes, those people sifting through wreckage or reduced to sitting and staring at all the something turned to nothing — you see your buildings, your people.
Why? It just is.
It’s just different when it’s your own.
Is that an awful realization? I mean, the realization that — even if all your loved ones are safe and sound, mere miles (but miles enough) away from the darkened path — you might care about the losses of nearby strangers more than far-flung ones?
Maybe it is. But then there’s this: In proximity there can be not only empathy, but action.
If there but for the grace of God went you, if the names of those cities had some meaning for you, if the devastated look like your own — if so, then the urge to give what you can, to do what you can, is all the harder to shake.
If all this sounds like imperfect empathy and charity, well, we are an imperfect people living in an imperfect world.
Those who look for more reason amid wreckage will rarely be satisfied. And so they often will ask another “why” question, directed to those who lean instead on faith — and there are many who do in the part of the world that includes Margaret and Euharlee and Taylorsville and Lindale and Tuscaloosa and Ringgold and Forestdale.
That question is: Why did your God let so much pain come to so many people? Where was He?
If you lean on faith and believe that, as the psalmist wrote, “the fear [read: reverence and respect] of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” you’ll refrain from definitive answers.
But you may suggest that, to some people, God spoke during the storm. And, to others, He speaks afterward — in the imperfect but loving kindness of those who clothe and shelter them, who console them and help them rebuild.
– By Kyle Wingfield