Monday, September 05, 2005

Tree of Life

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath provide critical opportunities to our nation; opportunities to assess not only the physical and economic devastation, but also to assess deeper devastations. We have an impetus to ask “what is the seed of the human violence added to the violence of nature?” and “Where can we look for the Tree of Life that will heal us?”

Just a few short years ago, in the wake of 9-11, the hard-boiled residents of New York City pulled together to support and encourage each other, and to laud the brave, loving souls who poured in from all over the country to help. The crime rate fell significantly. We heard story after story of courage, self-sacrifice, hope and gratitude.

Compare this to the reports we have coming out of New Orleans: looting, blaming, unspeakable crimes against fellow-refugees in the shelters provided, violence against the very people who have sacrificed to bring relief…What a contrast! The fact that there are still generous heroes who are willing not only to give time and treasure, but are also willing to brave the vicious ingratitude of those they have come to help, is evidence of a root of virtue in America that is still unshaken.

So what makes the difference? The sheer numbers of people affected? Race? Money? Government inefficiency? One of the 1,000 Katrina refugees which are being housed not 3 miles from my home wonders “why the ‘most powerful military on Earth’ couldn't subdue the armed thugs of New Orleans.”

Surely it is because, ultimately, no army on earth can subdue an idea.

The traditional American response to disaster is to look around for ways to help those less fortunate than myself – even if I, too, am a victim of that disaster. Mostly what we hear from those caught by Katrina in New Orleans is, “I deserve better than this!” “Why doesn’t somebody help me?” This kind of entitlement mentality, the idea that the world owes me a nice life, is as shocking to me as the scenes of natural devastation in the Mississippi delta.

The fruit of this idea is bitter indeed! It justifies shooting at the helicopters bringing food and water, because they “should have been here sooner”. It excuses those who actually stayed behind, hoping to profit from the rich looting after the storm. It explains away the monstrousness of violence against fellow-refugees. For if we are owed a nice life, then we have every right to be angry and impatient, even violent, when a nice life is not what is served up.

Yet is this idea operative only in New Orleans? How do I react when Providence serves up adversity? Do I succumb to the temptation to think of myself only as a victim? Do I vent my frustrations on others or excuse my own bad behavior?

Certainly, New Orleans shows us the extreme version of the entitlement mentality, but it serves as a sobering warning of things to come elsewhere, if we fail to examine our own reactions to difficulty. New Orleans will not heal on the hard rage of entitlement. Only the tears of repentance water the Tree of Life.

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