Words in the face of tragedy and brokenness

by Kristin on January 15, 2010

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by United Nations Development Programme

This has been a really long and difficult week. On Tuesday morning I woke up feeling like certainly it must be Wednesday or Thursday by now. Then the earthquake shook Haiti, and the week became indefinitely longer.

Of course, the thing that’s difficult for me—being an action-oriented problem-solver with my hands tied—doesn’t begin to compare to the horrendous, painful reality the people of Haiti have been facing.

What do you do when there’s nothing you can do?

I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what it means to feel helpless and powerless. The feeling has hit me on so many levels: My daughter is sad about her best friend moving away at the end of this month. Two of my closest friends, who live several states away, are going through really difficult times in their personal lives (and one has withdrawn to the point of not responding to emails, etc., so I really feel helpless).

And then there’s the overwhelming needs of people in Haiti. I can hardly bear to listen to NPR correspondents describing the scene. “Why does it take so many days to get water to these people?” I ask Jason, my emotions at the breaking point. I lose all common sense and start thinking “If only I could get over there with suitcases full of bottled water,” or “If only I could convince someone with a private plane to go pick up the babies in that orphanage.” I want to DO something. Donating money to Red Cross and World Vision doesn’t seem like enough.

Can average individuals begin to counter enormous forces?

When Pat Robertson made this terrible situation worse, by saying the Haitian people have brought this devastation upon themselves, I sort of lost it. My heart broke, unleashing a helpless anger. What can a person like me do to counter a person like Pat Robertson, and all the people who wholeheartedly follow him?

The last couple of days, Twitter has been abuzz with people tweeting “Pat Robertson doesn’t speak for me,” while others, like my friend Cody, tweeted “It’s people like Pat Robertson & his idiotic comments about Haiti that make me steer clear of Christianity.”

When a pastor on Twitter suggested that all the outrage over Robertson’s comment was a waste of time and energy, it made me stop in my tracks. Was it? Is it a waste to publicly denounce Robertson’s comment, if it doesn’t change a thing about what he thinks and does? Is it a waste to give $50 to a relief organization, if the water and medical supplies can’t get to the Haitian people? Is it a waste for President Obama to tell Haiti “You have not been forsaken,” if injured, thirsty and hungry people keep dying?

Words do matter

I suddenly knew that no, it isn’t a waste. It is important. I’m not talking about empty words alone, followed by no sincere action. That is not enough. But statements of support do matter. It’s important to stand behind what we believe, and to say “It’s not OK to say that,” or “Our hearts are breaking for you.”

Of course, it doesn’t feel like it changes much. It doesn’t change the fact that the world has been ignoring the people of Haiti for far too long, or that Christians haven’t worked hard enough to visibly counter ideas like Robertson’s, in word and action. An email of encouragement to my friend doesn’t change what’s going on her her life, any more than hugging my daughter will change the fact that her best friend is moving away. But it’s still important, and it’s important for the “doers” among us to remember that, and be OK with that sometimes. Maybe not to stop there, and leave it at that, but at least to recognize it as something.

Another Twitter friend, @hughlh, put it just right this morning:

The message of Jesus is not that God will get you out of crap. Rather, it is that when you are in crap, you are not alone.

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  • Trina

    Every little action does matter, right down to the words. What amazes me is how people with the ‘out there ideas’ believe they are just as right…and others just follow along, seemingly not thinking.
    Sure, the word, the hug, the bottle of water may not solve everything, but wouldnt it be worse to not act? I figure it’s all the grains of flour that make the bread.

  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I feel like you took the words out of my mouth or out of my head. I’ve been feeling similarly helpless myself. I swear, just reading your post and knowing that someone else feels the same and recognizes that words of support can make a difference, really actually helps.

    Even though it’s a bad feeling and makes us feel unproductive, I think the helplessness is a good sign that we care. We care enough to feel like we’re not doing enough and we care enough to care that we’re not doing enough. That, to me, is better than nothing any day.

  • http://www.ejly.net Eva Lyford

    The US flew supplies into Berlin with the Soviet Union staring them down. How we can’t get supplies in to a place that wants them shocks me. I heard on NPR that they can’t get supplies in that way because there is no network and communications on the ground… but still…?

  • http://etherealjoy.blogspot.com Joy

    I don’t know. I think energy is precious so you do send your best energy– as well as whatever physical form that manifests itself in life– to the people in Haiti. And you don’t give any energy to people who disagree with you. You are compassionate so you absorb that from the devastation, but then you send good to it and release it so you move forward in your life.
    This week, my 11 year old son’s classmate tried to stab another. An upscale school in an isolated beach community. My heart broke that my son and his peers would have to experience this at all in life, let alone at such a young age, While explaining it to me, my son said “Mom I know you can put some good into this”. While his confidence touched my heart, the sadness of it all was pretty dense…requires a lot of good to turn this around..so I called on friends and fellow bloggers to join with me and shine light as I physically went about applying what I know at school and with my children. That’s all we can do, stand together for what we believe in. It truly does change lives and make a difference.

  • http://bobruns.blogspot.com Bob Allen

    Good thoughts. What one person does can make a difference. Not all actions lead to equal results. More good comes from donating to a legitimate charity that is providing help in Haiti than denouncing Pat Robertson on Twitter or Facebook. There are lots of legitimate ways to help in this particular crisis. I wrote a note about some of those legitimate contributions and some scams this afternoon in my Facebook notes.

  • http://davesfaithblog.blogspot.com Dave

    I too have felt that helpless feeling in the face of a number of overwhelming disasters over the years. That is why I felt the need to write this blog entry, http://davesfaithblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/comfort-in-aftermath.html over the last few days. A description of my understanding of our place in such things cultivated in my relationship with Jesus through my church over 25 years. (I’m a slow learner!) I had not seen your entry here until mine was complete; a sign to me that I was meant to write it.

    I feel my entry also addresses your previous entry on January 13. I understand organized religion has its issues. However, ignoring the connectional understanding of God’s church cultivated over centuries in favor of a highly personal spirituality can have it’s pitfalls. Usually the issues plaguing organized religion occur when we forget those historical lessons and rely on tradition alone.

    Blessings on your struggles and journey!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Trina, I have learned a lot over the past few years about opening my mind to different people seeing the world and understanding things in completely different ways. Seems sort of obvious, I know, but it has taken a lot of growing for me to really accept that. And like you, I still find myself amazed at times at what people actually believe.

    Meredith, I’m so glad this has helped you in some small way. Your comment helped me, too. :)

    Eva, yes, that has been the most maddening aspect of all of this for me, too. Haiti is so close to the US, yet everything seems to be taking so long.

    Joy, I have an 11-year-old, so it’s especially upsetting to think of her trying to process an event like that at her school (and I know such an event isn’t out of the question). Being someone who can “put some good” into something bad, without diminishing the seriousness of the situation, is quite a gift. Gathering others around you to join in bringing light multiplies it. You’re doing important work!

    Bob, on the surface I completely get what you’re saying with this: “Not all actions lead to equal results. More good comes from donating to a legitimate charity that is providing help in Haiti than denouncing Pat Robertson on Twitter or Facebook.” But when I think about it more, I’m not so sure that’s something that we can say is unequivocally true. We don’t know how the goodness in us plays out in the lives of others, especially down the road. My comments and others against Pat Robertson on Twitter might impact someone who has been steering clear of Christianity. The course of that person’s life might be changed, and they might go on to have a great impact on the lives of others. That’s why I think we each have to be true to ourselves, as we were created. Being true to myself involved both denouncing Pat Robertson and giving money to a legitimate relief organization. :)

    Dave, I’m really looking forward to taking a look at your blog post now! It sounds like we were being led in many of the same ways. (And I’m a slow learner, too!) I absolutely agree with what you’re saying here about the historical church, too. Being a part of a church is very critical for me, and it’s what I recommend to others. The problem is that there are times in our lives and places in this world where finding the right organized body of believers to worship and learn with can be almost impossible. I really encourage people to draw closer to God in whatever way works for them at the time, rather than going for the all-or-nothing approach. (I addressed that in an older post: http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/?p=409) Thanks for your comment!

  • http://davesfaithblog.blogspot.com Dave

    I remember your post 409! I almost commented on it at the time.

    I guess I was blessed early with a church that had the accepting values you describe! The best way I have to describe it is to reference another post of mine, http://davesfaithblog.blogspot.com/2008/11/faith-and-emerging-culture.html. I think a lot of it was the Presbyterian denomination but I also think that church was ahead of its time. My post talked about the “emerging culture” but the time period was mid 80′s before that term was even in use or recognized.

    Keep posting!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Dave, thank you for directing me to your blog post about Haiti. It was just what I needed to read right now (and I hope some of my readers will take a moment to read it, too). http://davesfaithblog.blogspot.com/2010/01/comfort-in-aftermath.html

  • http://mildlymystical.com Susan C Brown

    Hi Kristin,
    I think it’s true that the little things we do add up to something good. It’s the accumulated work over many years that have led to organizations already at work in Haiti who have the best chance of offering real help to the people there.

    And about your twitter post, I wish strength and peace to you, your mother, and your grandmother.

  • http://themoderngal.blogspot.com The Modern Gal

    I especially appreciate your recognition that Haiti is in worse shape now because its people have been ignored for too long and that Pat Robertson has the voice that he does because enough hasn’t been done to counter him.

    I, too, often feel hopeless when huge tragedy strikes. I think it is important to remember that everything we do can help, but it is especially important to back up our words with action.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Susan, that’s a great point. It doesn’t necessarily take a big, powerful company arriving on the scene to make a real difference. Cumulative good not only adds up to wisdom and knowledge, but also trust. A good lesson not just for organizations, but for individuals, too.

    Modern Gal, yes, it seems like if we really want to cover a past wrong, like the world’s lack of care for the poorest people among us, we have to both acknowledge the wrong and do something right. It’s always so tempting to skip that first part, though.