Futility in Nature: Lessons from a Hurricane

Posted on January 14th, by Molly Hall 1 Comment

When I first heard that a hurricane was headed toward the Northeast, I thought, “Eh, let’s drive to Pennsylvania and wait it out at my dad’s.” No big deal. We had a van, the blessing of a little advance notice, and time to get there. But as it inched up the coast I realized: the hurricane is going to hit Pennsylvania too. It’s an unprecedented convergence of two massive storms and I am not going to be able to dodge it.

So I shifted gears into preparing. Like everyone in my area, I bought batteries, candles, a camp stove, canned food, and water by the truckload. I bought everything I could think of so that we could get through the expected power outage. By Monday morning I felt pretty darn ready. Hey! I had done everything possible! Wasn’t this nifty? We were all stocked up and tucked in, ready to have a few hours at home listening to the wind. I cooked all morning, happy to have my husband home from work and my daughter home from school. I thought we’d have a day or two without power and some good quality time as a family. It thought it might be kind of fun.The power went out before the hurricane made landfall. And, in my town, it stayed out for ten days. Now, please believe me, I do have the proper perspective on this. No one in my family was injured. We didn’t lose our home or have to go to a shelter. Everyone was safe. But it was extremely hard. After the first night—when we thought, “Hey, let’s read Harry Potter by candlelight!”—the power outage quickly lost it’s charm. The whole area shut down: schools, transit systems, businesses. All our food went bad. We were cold all the time. Everyone’s nerves grew frayed. Life went from abundance to scarcity very quickly.

The whole thing made me think of Gordon Neufeld’s “traffic circle” metaphor for adaptation. I really didn’t want to adapt to the reality of this hurricane. First I tried to change it. “I don’t need to face this hurricane,” I thought. “Let’s leave town!” A monster, freak-of-nature storm was bearing down on the eastern seaboard and I really thought I could somehow get out of it. Then there were times when I reacted with frustration. On the nights when my fingers were cold as I cooked over the gas stove using a headlamp, I was snappish and grumpy, wishing it could be some other way. But I couldn’t get out of it. It was a reality I had to face.

So I had to adapt. I had to allow myself to be changed by that which I could not change. I had to depend on others, which was extremely vulnerable. We had to go to friends’ houses to charge our phones and warm up. We spent several days in upstate New York with family. That was a welcome haven from the cold and dark, but we had to come back. And the power was still out. In an unfortunate twist of timing, this crisis overlapped with an impending move. So we had to pack up our apartment, which was now approximately as cold as a freezer. (“No heat” is different on the tenth day than it is on the first.) Without the least bit of over-dramatizing: it was excruciating.

But I changed. I couldn’t have it the way I wanted it–and I wanted VERY HARD for it to be different—so I had to adapt. I had to deal with the situation as it played out, day by day. I was lucky. I was surrounded by loving people, family who wanted to help, and faraway friends who were sending prayers. We were able to keep our kids safe and fed. But we had to go through the struggle. There was no way around it.

So, looking back, these are the gifts the hurricane brought me:

A reminder of how intensely vulnerable it is to be dependent on others. As adults, I think we spend a ton of energy trying to avoid dependence. We like to have our own money, our own ride, and the option to do things our own way. It’s so much more comfortable that way! But I have new empathy for children and how they must feel every day. While it’s completely appropriate for children to depend on adults, I now have a palpable experience of how very vulnerable that dependent position is. I am thankful to all those who offered help. And when the invitations were big-hearted, warm, and generous, it felt much safer to accept them. I hope to remember that when I am inviting my children to depend on me.

A new sense of my own capability. If someone were to announce that another storm was on the way tomorrow, I’d be pretty bummed. But I’d be certain I could handle it. I would start amassing the resources and, more importantly, the support that we’d need. And we’d just deal with it. Also, the next time I move to a new house I won’t be the least bit daunted. Once you’ve packed in those conditions—frozen fingers, not enough light to see what you’re packing, and an intense time limit–an ordinary move is a snap! This is the kind of resilience I want to build in my children. As painful as the steps in between “futility” and “adaptation” are, the opportunity to build resilience is worth it.

The value of a great big NO. Despite all my Neufeld studies, I still find myself avoiding big NOs with my kids. But they come in life whether we want them to or not. This futility, brought to us by Mother Nature, was very tough to deal with. No one wants to hear “No.” No, you can’t avoid the hurricane. No, you can’t have your heat back on. But you do get to test your mettle. You get to dig deeper and see who you are in a crisis. And you get to change. Hopefully, you find the courage to ask for help. Hopefully, you rise toward your better self.

Empathy for others who are suffering. After observing hundreds of natural disasters from afar on television, I now see that the suffering from these events doesn’t end when the news cameras go home. The pain and difficulty last much, much longer. Here in New Jersey, someone close to us lost a whole house on the shore. Others lost their lives or their children. Many others were stuck in places without water, heat, or aid for weeks. Their pain goes on much longer than our ten paltry days. So, I look at people differently now. I don’t know what they’ve been through and I may never know. But I have “space” for them and all that they might be feeling. There is more room inside me now. My capacity for love and understanding has expanded.

I wouldn’t have chosen to go through all that. But I live in a world where hurricanes happen. Where people suffer. Where you can’t predict the future or be certain of your own safety. That’s just a part of reality. And I can face it.