Tragedy reveals our better selves

Col. Susan R. Sowers
37th Transportation Command commander

***image1***The other day I was asked a simple yet probing question: “Why do you think the Tsunami happened?”

I quickly responded that there was a shift in the geological plates in the Indian Ocean, causing the earthquake that triggered the event. But even as I was answering, I realized he was really asking the philosophical “why.”

So I asked him why he thought it had happened. His short answer was thoughtful. He thought it was to bring people together – people united in a common goal of helping others.

His explanation made me think about why these kinds of catastrophes occur and what we should learn from them.

This kind of “why” question truly challenges our worldly view, and – for some – draws heavily on one’s theological perspective of life’s meaning, the problem of pain and the belief in hope for the future.

If nothing else, I think many of us were reminded of just how small and powerless “man” is in controlling his destiny. When considering mankind’s huge leaps in controlling technologies that harness the resources of the planet, the primal forces of nature reflected by those waves and the subsequent disease are huge reminders of our “place” in the order of the universe. As much as we like to believe we can absolutely control our destiny – some things are out of our hands.

On the brighter side, we’ve all heard fantastic stories of courage, the endurance of survivors, the miraculous reunions, and of human generosity and compassion for others. Truly this catastrophe has been relayed to the world by the almost real-time pictures and videos sent by the tourists from many countries; uniting us all in a shared grief and desperate urge to reach out to assist those we don’t even know.

How wonderful, that when it really matters, we humans drop our filters of race, religion and political bias and really do reach out to help others in need. Even at national and political levels, governments are overlooking their disagreements to meet a common need.

More heartwarming, however, is hearing the one-on-one stories of tremendous human generosity that are emerging. A woman from my church was in Sri Lanka during the disaster. She tells of an old man who scaled a rocky outcropping to share half his rice ball with a frightened and stranded woman who had initially sought higher ground to flee the flood.

Perhaps it’s this unselfish compassion that sets us apart as humans. I cannot help but draw from my faith beliefs and am solidified in my hope that we humans are made in God’s image and indeed have an eternal and higher call to help all in our capacity to do so.

Despite the constant barrage from the news of terrorists’ beheadings, the senseless self-destruction from drugs and the greed of some chief executive officers, these images of generosity offer us hope in ourselves and tomorrow.

The “why” question reinforces for me that we are only strangers for a while before we discover that we are really in the same family – brothers and sisters who are just meeting for the first time.