It’s Wednesday, 2pm. At work, you think of dinner, exercise, your favorite TV show. You check the news. CNN.com reports that a storm will hit your city tonight at 8p.m. and it does. CNN doesn’t report that you will be left with nothing: No home to go to, no dinner to eat, your laptop + gym shoes swallowed by the sea. Your life, eaten by the storm. All that’s left is wet wood, neon volunteer vests, and photos of your life strewn about.
CNN didn’t tell what you should do next.
When Hurricane Sandy hit this year, thousands of New Yorkers and East Coasters found themselves in this situation – plucked from the safety of their stable worlds and thrust into a new uncertain reality in the wake of the storm. Homes with 50 years of life, swallowed whole. Asking for food and water instead of just having it. Wounded hearts from unexpected death. Hopelessness at starting over. How? How exactly does one start over when your life has just washed away? How do you receive the kindness of strangers when you feel restless, uncomfortable, angry?
The external damage from weathering a storm is immense. Harder still, is trying to repair what feels un-repairable – your heart, your grief, finding a reason to continue. Our emotions are sharp and require more than a sturdy pair of work gloves. What’s needed is resilience, the thing that helps you recover, get back on track from a tragedy, failure, misstep.
Resilience weighed heavy on my mind while I volunteered at shelters, huddled at my sister’s place on the West Side of NYC, and tried to process this new feeling I had for my city and its people. Disaster or not, our hearts and psyches are consistently assailed by life. Resilience is what you hold onto and trust when it seems like there’s nothing left, and it’s more subtle and trustworthy than “bucking up.”
When a calamity happens, coping itself is hard, if not impossible. Just taking stock of what’s happened can feel unbearable. Processing times are different for everyone, as they should be, and fast recovery should not be expected. It’s dangerous not to acknowledge, at the very least, that life is dramatically different and that things have changed at a deep level. We need time, lots of it, to process. We need to deny it for a while if necessary, to come out of it how we come out of it. Sometimes we’re required to wear a courageous smile while feeling vulnerable and shaky inside. There is no right way to approach this new reality except to approach it. There is no right way to process a new identity except to meet it as you are.
That itself is brave.
I remember a particularly hard time in my life when my relationship ended. I say “particularly hard” but what I mean is that a mini Hurricane Sandy happened inside my heart. Intellectually I prepared for what was to come, but emotionally, it leveled me. Things changed fast and I had nothing to hold onto, my security gone. For three months all I did was write, cry, eat, and sleep. Having my insides catch up to my outside took all my energy. I learned then, and again last week, that the only real thing to know about disaster is that there is no formula for healing, no specified time limit, no right time to get back to life. Re-orienting oneself takes time, sometimes all the time in the world, and coping requires enormous self-kindness. Unrelenting kindness is the only way to live without ground under your feet.
There are times when you will manage enough self-love to receive someone else’s generosity, their warm blanket or kind words. When you share un-survivable moments over cots and stories and for a moment, chaos becomes kinship. There are times other’s warmth will fill up your empty spaces and where you feel, perhaps, you can belong to this new reality. You may feel this new connection has a deeper structural integrity than the home you once knew.
Or you may not. There are times when all you will manage to do is cope. That is as it should be. Know that you can weather the storm outside AND inside your soul. You can handle what is being thrown your way. Whatever is assailing you at this very moment, I know you will make it through. If your life remains intact, or your life is in shambles due to Sandy, I urge you to take your time, be with those who make you feel strong, and know the only right way to heal is how you choose to heal. We can rebuild and do it together if we take it moment by moment.