Hurricane Katrina: Staying Centered and Taking Action

Alexis Johnson, PhD and Judith Schmidt, PhD

Dear CIL community,

Most of us are still reeling from the pictures of New Orleans. In many ways this tragedy is different from that of 9/11. The tragedy of 9/11 affected everyone equally; wealth and race were not factors. This natural disaster has been suffered predominately by the old, the ill, and the poor and mostly black citizens of that city. The collective shadow of our way of life, the underbelly of unresolved racism and class inequality, the narcissism of – each of us takes care only of himself and let the other swim or sink – is exposed in this catastrophe. Both sadly and gratefully this gives us the opportunity to confront and hopefully heal these old wounds. We are now facing our moral failure and hopefully out of this confrontation we may find healing and transformation – toward compassion and caring each for the other.

So, at the collective level, we in America have a lot of soul searching to do, a lot of pain and grief to feel, and let us pray that out of this comes a profound repair of the fabric of our society. It is so hard to stay informed and involved with the political system and yet as conscious citizens it is so important that we each do our best to participate on the collective level and support those individuals who best represent our values.

At the personal level, we each must find our ways of not falling into helplessness, hopelessness and passivity. All of us know that trauma tends to elicit echoes of past traumas and involves the felt state of helplessness. What are the actions you can take to overcome that tendency? Can you give money? Can you find the right address and send clothes, school supplies, and backpacks? Can you open you home to a homeless family or to a student who needs to finish high school or college? Do you know of an institution with space that might be used? On Long Island, an old hospital is being opened to take 150 people. Those people will need help of all kinds. One of our Chicago CIL students has suggested the making of a quilt with her classmates to be given to a new-born in New Orleans. Probably, no matter where you are, some displaced people will find their way into your area – can you take the time to ask the local Red Cross where they are and what help do they need?

This from an onsite letter from New Orleans emailed by a friend:

“What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running…the nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive….most of these workers had lost their homes and had not heard from members of their families, yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that was not under water” The agency and human instinct to tend to others was perhaps not sensational enough news for our media.

There is a debate in the trauma field just now: are people helped by telling their story or does the telling re-traumatize, stimulating once again the instincts toward fight, flight or freeze? Is it more healing for the traumatized person to get on with it, to mobilize and find the healing of agency that overcomes the immobilization of helplessness and hopelessness? We at CIL believe that both are needed; some people need one and some the other. We must listen and follow to find out the best response for each individual. Just imagine if, through the Red Cross or through some faith- based group, one of you were to volunteer to just sit with a survivor of Katrina. If the person needed to tell the story he or she would need to speak while looking into a face of compassion, to see the eyes, the mouth of another expressing the presence of deep listening. In the telling of the story the whole nervous system is quieting and the survivor begins to rejoin humanity. But telling and retelling of the story is not enough. Those who work actively with trauma have learned that agency must be restored to thaw the frozen state of trauma. And so, for example, rather than think only of sending rescue workers into New Orleans to restore its infrastructure, it would be doubly helpful to allow as many residents as possible to participate in the much needed restoration efforts.

What are we to think about those in New Orleans who are cited as victimizing others, including those who have come to do rescue work? How are we to understand their destructive behavior in terms of trauma response? There has been research done with rats that shows that the last thing the rat will do before being rendered immobilized is to attack by biting the hand that is holding it. It is possible, time and in depth study of these offenders will tell, that aggressive behavior is in some way the nervous system’s way of fight rather than freeze response.

At the transpersonal level let us remember the Buddhist practice of tonglen. Through that practice we can find comfort in the spiritual. A tonglen practice is around the theme of suffering. The first step might be to breathe in and out with your personal suffering. Just breathe in and out and let the suffering pass through you. See the pictures that most affected you and breathe with them. Just breathe in and out and allow the suffering to travel in and out. Remember a particular incident that affected you deeply that you read about or heard about and breathe in and out, allowing the suffering to travel through you. Gradually, as you breathe in and out with the suffering, allow the out breath to hold compassion for everyone on the Gulf – the victims, the officials, the military, the police, the looters and snipers.

Act on all levels: by restoring your own wholeness you contribute to tikkun, the repair of our wounded world.

Please share your responses with us on our yahoo sites.

With love

Alexis and Judith

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