Tuesday, October 30, 2012. 12:00 am EST
“Yes. How can we help?”
“There is water outside my house and it is rising fast. It’s already on my first step and I see water bubbling in the middle of the street. I’m not sure what’s happening but I’m scared that my house may fill up with water in the next few hours.”
“Sir, we are looking at your location and our emergency personnel can’t make it down your block.”
“But I have five little children here? What am I supposed to do?”
“We’re sorry sir. We can’t help you. Good luck.”
There I was, staring out my bedroom window with the phone at my ear as water was rushing up my front steps. In the other room, my wife and five children were sound asleep. I stood there overwhelmed. I turned to God and asked for help. Then I ran down the stairs.
Welcome to Hurricane Sandy, one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Northeast, ever. Hundreds injured, over 50 dead. Thousands without homes. Millions without power.
As I sit here in Sandy’s aftermath, sirens screaming in the background and debris in front my house, I keep thinking of one maxim: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Judging by Sandy’s onslaught, there is some serious strength waiting for us. Sandy brought her game, now it’s time to bring ours.
So I decided to make few resolutions.
#1: Be Happy with Normal
I remember when I was 16 years old. I was home on Saturday night with nothing to do, moping around, feeling sorry for myself when my grandparents came over.
“What’s the matter?” my grandmother asked.
“I’m having a bad night, my plans unraveled and I have nothing to do,” I kvetched.
My grandmother, who at my age was in Auschwitz, commented, “Boy, what I would have given to have nothing to do when I was your age.”
Enough said. Checkmate. Perspective gained.
It’s amazing how when our lives are functioning normally, we focus on what we are missing. We run through our days barely paying attention to all the things we have like health, shelter, family, electricity and heat. We are too busy coming and going, buzzing and beeping, thinking and worrying about what more we can get, to slow down and see what we already have.
Then something threatens our “normal.” A loved one gets sick. We encounter tragedy. We are in danger. Almost instantly, we shift perspective. We stop focusing on more. We stop worrying about what’s next. We just want it to go back to “normal.”
My Hurricane Sandy experience began Monday evening. We had been inside the house all day. The winds were howling and the trees were shaking. The lights began to flicker, and then … black.
We lost power. They told us power outages were likely but you can never fully prepare to lose power. It was dark. Real dark. For the next few hours, we slowly felt the effects. No internet, cell phones, heat, hot water, refrigeration. We huddled together. I couldn’t help but think, pray and silently beg for power. That’s all I wanted. I didn’t even care what it was powering; just power.
Power? Who appreciates power? I have never once turned on a light and said, “Wow, power. Amazing!”
But at that moment, that’s all I wanted.
Our Sages define happiness as the ability to take pleasure in what we have, and not pain in what we don’t. Positive Psychology gurus like Tal Ben Shachar speak about the scientific relationship between happiness and gratitude. We all know this, but we never seem to integrate it into our lives.
We live in a time where most of the civilized world enjoys more luxuries than the wealthy elite just decades earlier. We have so much, and yet we just want more. We are waiting for something to make us happy. But there is nothing that can make us happy. Happiness is a choice.
Of course we should strive. Growth is part of our life. But we need to make sure we live with perspective. We have to start to take pleasure in “normal.” We have to start to enjoy life the way we have it. We shouldn’t need a Category 1 hurricane to have us cheer and hug when the lights go back on.
Resolution #1: Every day, notice one thing in my “normal” life and be grateful for it.
#2: Trust the Greatness Within
As I stood there, staring out the window, it hit me. No one was coming. No one.
I always thought there would be someone to turn to in times of need. A police officer, firefighter, emergency personnel, family or friend are just a phone call away if the going got rough.
I was wrong.
I was alone, and responsible, and in need of help.
Standing in my room, a thought popped into my mind. A person is never alone. God is not in the sky watching down at the earth. He is Infinite and All-encompassing, in every bit of reality. He is not just “up there,” He is “right here,” the glue holding us together. We all have a depth of strength, wisdom and perseverance that we can draw on. He is with us, always. I prayed that I can find Him, and now.
An idea came to me. Grab the family and run out the back. But before I woke them, I needed to make sure we had a place to go.
I ran down the stairs, out the back door to the backyard. I jumped a tall fence, through a patch of trees and then to the back of a home that faced another street. I climbed the back stairs and saw a window. I banged and banged until someone answered.
Thankfully, they were home and welcoming. Within minutes, I went back to my house, woke my family and then, one by one, retraced our steps until everyone was in the house, safe.
My actions were but a pittance of the courage, heroism and strength brought on during Sandy.
Throughout the storm, thousands of “regular” people tapped into an internal source they may have never previously accessed. Doctors and nurses moved hospital wards and saved lives. Police and firefighters swam, ran and drove boats to save people from underwater homes. Neighbors, friends and total strangers literally saved people’s lives.
Why? It’s not because crisis breeds heroes. Crisis enables people to bring out the heroism they always had within them.
We are created with a soul that is Divine. Like a well, the more we draw, the more we recognize its depth. Sometimes it takes tragedy to realize how kind, caring and generous we are. Sometimes a crisis reveals the courage, bravery and strength that we never saw before.
Resolution #2: Dare to be great. Every day, set one goal beyond my perceived limitations and go for it. Push to see how much potential I really have.
3. Restructure Your Life to Align with your Priorities
Famed author and speaker, Dr. Stephen Covey, ran a seminar where he invited people to place different size rocks into a bucket. After multiple failed attempts to get all the rocks in, Covey demonstrated how to do it. He started with the big rocks and after careful placement, all the rocks fit. He turned to the audience and surmised: “If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in."
How many times do we feel overwhelmed but unfulfilled? Busy but out of control? Sensing that life should feel different than it currently does. The reason is that, many times, our lives don’t align with our priorities. We are out of balance and we feel it.
There is nothing like a crisis to realign our actions to our priorities.
After I secured the safety of my family, I headed back home to get some basic items. On the way back in, I surveyed the damage. My car was under water, my home was filling up. I realized that this storm may wipe out my possessions.
I tried to be upset but I couldn’t. I didn’t care. Not even a bit. I knew I would care tomorrow, but for tonight, there were more important things. I rushed to collect diapers, water, socks and pajamas and headed back to my family. Stuff is what it is, stuff. For tonight, it didn’t make the top of my list.
How many times do our loved ones get rescheduled for our work? How many conversations did we miss even though we were physically there? How many family members get less attention than our hobbies?
And we wonder why we feel unfulfilled.
There is a family in my neighborhood that awoke to water gushing into their home. They climbed to their attic until they were rescued hours later. The next day, I saw the father walking with his kids. He had a gym bag of his possessions. His house was under water. I asked him how he was. He responded “Thank God, everything is great!” Seeing my facial response, he continued, “I’m not sure if I have a house, but I have my wife and kids. That’s all I need.”
Lesson #3: Each day, hug each kid, tight. Pick a family member to call to say I love you.
#4: Giving is what makes the world go ‘round
“The world was built on kindness” (Psalms 89:3)
As we sat in my neighbor’s house, I couldn’t help but smile. We were practically strangers. Yet their outpouring of support was amazing. They made us feel as welcome as can be. They brought food, water and blankets. We made quite a mess and a ruckus, and they were not bothered in the slightest.
Giving feels better than taking because giving is a Divine quality, and the more Godly we act, the better it feels.
There is something about crisis that brings out the best in many of us. Deep down, we know we are one people. During “normal” times, it’s easy to focus on the differences. It’s easy to entrench and protect ourselves. But when our normal is threatened, we realize that we need each other. Our differences are eclipsed by our similarities. We are free to be our true selves. We are free to give.
The day after the storm, I walked up the street. People were outside their homes offering help to each other. We were sharing sump pumps and wet-vacs. One woman, whose house was spared, drove by and brought us groceries. Someone else dropped off a pie of pizza. At night, a friend stopped by with heaters. Families moved in with others. Our phones are buzzing with well-wishers.
Resolution #4: The next time I have an opportunity to give, I will just give.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012. 9:00 am EST
I walked outside my home to survey the damage. The streets were still filled with water. Coast guard boats were evacuating people from their homes. Sirens were blaring down the streets.
“What happens now, Daddy?” my son asked.
“There is only one place to go from here,” I answered.