Hurricane Sandy and The Search for Meaning

The word “normal” will be a long time returning to those in the path of Superstorm Sandy last week.  Lives were lost, many made homeless, power is slow to be restored in multiple areas, schools disorganized, mud and debris cover formerly lovely neighborhoods.  Hardest hit, as always, are the poor and the disabled.  Cold weather has moved in with more storms, increasing the misery and danger.  It’s just awful.

Right after the storm, the blogosphere exploded with “Blame God for Hurricane Sandy” articles and posts.  I don’t suppose this should be shocking: it all fits with the “Divine Butler-god” that I’ve written about before. As long as we get what we want (good weather for weekends, sports events and campouts) then God has been nice and obedient and fits well within our god-definitions. But the moment things go wrong and suffering results, we quickly decide God is capricious and evil.

Recently, I have been rereading Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl, a psychiatrist, was one of the few who survived Nazi Germany’s unimaginably horrific concentration camps. He described how many, both prisoners and guards, became nearly totally dehumanized by camp conditions and culture. Those sub-human ones lost all capacity for caring about anything but themselves, and freely inflicted horrors on others.

But a few became bigger in soul, not smaller. They retained their power to choose how they would respond to a system that tortured and dehumanized them.

Ultimately, Frankl realized, they no longer asked, “What do I expect from life?” Instead, they began to ask, “What does life expect from me?”

In a culture like ours, drowning in consumer choices and never-ending enticements for more, be they pleasures, riches, gadgets, time, luxury, protection, or comfort, we tend to stick with the “What do I expect from life” question.

We are inevitably deeply disappointed.

We will never have enough because that mindset keeps us in the bottomless abyss of needing more. In our disappointment, many blame “god” for falling down on the job, seeing ourselves as helpless victims of this capricious, evil “god.”

When we ask, “What does life expect of me?” and particularly when we are able to word it this way, “What does God expect from me?” our perspective may change.

First, we begin to realize we have no right to insist God order the universe for our comfort or protection.

Second, we begin to see ourselves as participants in the outcomes, rather than victims of the circumstances. As a participant, my choices, limited as they might be, still matter hugely. I may use my choices to respond courageously and with a generous, well-formed character, even in suffering.

I ache for the people that have been harmed, made homeless, and suffered much loss in the wake of these storms. Everyone involved has been traumatized. Lives will not ever be the same.

Some have already become less human. They have looted abandoned homes and businesses, disregarded the needs of others, and concentrated only on themselves.

But others, deep in their trauma, ask, “What DOES God (or life) expect of me here?” These people are emerging as true, and usually unrecognized, heroes.  Even as they seek their own survival, they are helping others as it is possible.  Eventually, some will look at the death and devastation and see hope and resurrection.  Ultimately, perhaps, they will need less and give more, freer, lighter, and unafraid.

This storm happened. Storms always have, and they always will as long as the physical universe is in existence. I wish they didn’t. I’d like all of us to be comfortable and safe.  However, I believe we can find real meaning in this and every other storm that comes our way only if we choose participation in the healing and the learning process that comes from it.

11 thoughts on “Hurricane Sandy and The Search for Meaning

  1. Christy, I like some things about this entry, but I wish it was published a couple months later. The reality is that I agree with just about everything you said, but if I put myself in the shoes of people I know in New Jersey, I know I’d really struggle with your words.
    I don’t know who specifically you were responding to, but the people I know who question God in this time are not angry because they can’t have a nice weekend on the golf course. They’re angry because 80% of their city…not just their house…THEIR CITY is under water. They’re angry because their jobs washed away with their homes and a lack of electricity matters–really, really matters–when it’s 42 degrees outside and you have an infant to care for.
    I have a lot of family and friends in NJ. One of whose spouse just lost his job and whose infant shivers because there’s no electricity…all because of some storm that ripped mindlessly through her town. She has a right to challenge and question God. I think she is blessed because of it.
    The people of God aren’t named “Abraham” after the paragon of obedience. They are instead named “Israel.” “One who wrestles with God. ” Questioning and challenging God, screaming at the Almighty over the roar of destructive wind is right and good and blessed.
    “What does God expect of me?” is a critical question to ask, but I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that many of the heroes of faith and the heroes who will emerge after this storm will first have to say, “God, I expected a lot more from you.” I can’t imagine saying to a mother whose children were literally ripped from her arms by the greedy tides that “you shouldn’t be pissed at God. Ask what God expects from you right now.” I think that all God expects of that mother is to survive.
    This is going to sound patronizing of me so I apologize to anyone hurt by this storm who reads this. There is time sensitivity to all of this, Christy. If the victims (and yes, they are victims) stay too long in this place of challenge, then they miss the opportunity to answer the call to serve and rise up and rebuild. Job wrestles with God for chapters and chapters and chapters until finally God hears enough and slaps him back into place. But God does give space for Job to wrestle.
    I would humbly request, that you would give space to the victims of Sandy to wrestle as well.

    I decided to post my response here as well:
    http://ireverant.wordpress.com/2012/11/01/hurricane-sandy-the-search-for-meaning-a-rebuttal/

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  2. Pingback: Hurricane Sandy & The Search for Meaning (a rebuttal) « iREVeRANT

  3. Another fan of Frankl’s work. It is a book one can keep going back to, and his message that we can find meaning – or make meaning – under any circumstances, including suffering is powerful.

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  4. I appreciated your words in the aftermath of the “Great Storm”. I read Frankl’s book many years ago and it may have been a major influence in the way I thought and worked through issues as a young adult. It also probably influenced my decision to enter the ministry and “try to change the world.”

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  5. I have never felt very important, but this article gives me hope. Not, of course, that I will become important, but that maybe I really can be a “participant in outcomes” even in ways I never realize. I will ask what life expects of me in hopes that I can find guidance and be energized enough in spirit to move forward.

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    • The idea that some are unimportant to the healing of the world can very much hinder the process. I think there are no neutral stances. Either we are participating in that healing or we are not. I happen to know that you are a major participant in it.

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  6. Ms. Thomas,
    I want to tell you how much I enjoy your writings. The pastor (John Fleming) of my church, Grace UMC in Sherman, TX turned me on to your blog earlier this year and I have been a faithful reader ever since. I have not thought about, “What does God expect of me” in circumstances like storms. I have often reflected on why people blame God. But your point really struck home; if we think about situations like hurricanes, etc. and search for what God expects of us I suspect the outcomes will be better for all. Thanks for the reading. I plan to share it with our men’s group breakfast this Saturday.

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