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The entire world is riveted on the horrific saga of Japan: the earthquake, the tsunami that followed, and now the growing nuclear crisis. It is heartbreaking to see all the death and destruction. The initial shock was devastating, and no one knows yet how bad the long-term damage will be. But amid all the stories of catastrophe, there have been signs of light in the darkness. One such light for me has been the beautiful examples of selfless service and generosity seen in responses to the disaster. The fact that disasters often seem to elicit this kind of loving response has led me to think that perhaps we should all go into what I'm calling "permanent disaster-relief mode"—especially since the author of A Course in Miracles himself has characterized our current world situation as an "acute emergency."
Of course, pointing to selfless acts in the midst of disaster has become almost a knee-jerk response in spiritual circles. Are those selfless acts really such a common thing, or are we spiritual types just cherry picking to make ourselves feel better? I just read an article by Johann Hari of the UK Independent which claims that yes, hard evidence really does show that disasters bring out the best in us. We have a stereotypical image of people in disaster areas running amok once law and order is stripped away. But research into centuries of disasters all over the world shows that in fact, this is simply not the case. Hari writes:
The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. When the social scientist Enrico Quarantelli tried to write a thesis [about] how people descend into chaos and panic after disasters, he concluded: "My God! I can't find any instances of it." On the contrary, he wrote, in disasters "the social order does not break down….Co-operative rather than selfish behavior predominates."
Hari cites the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as a representative example. After the earthquake, people set up soup kitchens and knitted tents, merchants handed out free food, plumbers fixed broken pipes free of charge, and committees formed bucket brigades to put out fires. In a city that was normally rife with tension between white people and Chinese immigrants, after the disaster white people handed out food and clothing to their Chinese brothers and sisters. Dorothy Day, a young girl who grew up to found the Catholic Worker Movement, put it succinctly: "While the crisis lasted, people loved each other."
Hari cites numerous other examples, from people huddling together in the London Blitz during World War II to the selfless heroism of so many on 9/11. True, there are some selfish individuals in disaster situations, but these people are the exception, not the rule. There's no doubt that human beings can be atrociously selfish and callous. But, Hari writes, this isn't what prevails when the chips are down:
It's often implied that kindness and generosity are naïve, idealistic fictions that will always be trumped by self-interest and greed. But when the stakes are highest, the opposite is the case. When everything else is stripped away, when the buildings fall and the seas rise, we remember all that really matters is caring for each other.
This insight seems crucial to me, for it tells us something about our very nature. A Course in Miracles tells us many times in many ways that we learn what we are through what we teach or demonstrate to others. "From your demonstration others learn, and so do you" (M-In.2:3); in each and every situation, your actions "teach others what you are, and what they are to you" (M-In.2:10). When we act selfishly, we learn (falsely) that we are selfish by nature; when we act lovingly, we learn that we are loving by nature.
How, then, do we know whether what we're teaching ourselves is true? The Course offers many ways to tell, above all the peace and joy that teaching love brings us. But it seems to me that our response to disasters offers another line of evidence for our true nature. If selfless love is what we turn to when our very survival is at stake, doesn't that give us a huge clue about what we really are? After all, we naturally turn to our greatest strengths in our moments of greatest peril, drawing on these strengths to save us. If the greatest strengths we naturally turn to during disasters are love and caring for one another—if our love is what saves us—doesn't this suggest that our true nature is love?
We have seen numerous demonstrations of this love and caring already in Japan. Hari cites the Japanese technicians who are trying prevent meltdown at the nuclear plants, without regard to their personal safety. Then there is the much-circulated "Letter from Sendai," a blog posted by Japan resident Anne Thomas. In it, Thomas describes the outpouring of love and generosity in her neighborhood, where aftershocks still strike an average of fifteen minutes apart:
During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out a sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets.
It's utterly amazingly that where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an earthquake strikes. People keep saying, "Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another…."
And the Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack [where she is not currently living] to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, no.
Hari's article is entitled "The Myth of the Panicking Disaster Victim—and Why We Should Be Inspired This Week." It is inspiring to see how so many people in Japan are responding with such love and communal spirit in the wake of such awful death and destruction, not to mention the ongoing threat of radiation from the crippled nuclear plants.
But perhaps you've already seen the rub. As Day put it, "While the crisis lasted, people loved each other" (my italics). Hari asks the critical question: "Can we hold onto this impulse after the disaster passes? Can we spread it?" Day herself is a marvelous example of someone who did hold onto it and spread it. Her experience of the San Francisco earthquake inspired her to found a movement to help the poor that has helped so many that she is regarded by many as a modern-day saint. But alas, all too often, the communal spirit is lost as soon as the immediate crisis has passed. Egos reassert control, and things are back to "business as usual."
A great example of this is 9/11. Three weeks after the attacks, I went to New York City as part of a goodwill visit from the people of Oregon. I'll never forget the spirit there. Everyone greeted us with open arms. Tough-as-nails "New Yawkers" were in tears as we marched in the Columbus Day parade. Everyone was helping everyone else. Ground Zero was a solemn shrine, almost a holy place. Volunteers from all over the world worked tirelessly at the site. And of course, the entire world was reaching out to us then. As so many headlines read, "We are all Americans today."
But now, almost ten years later, it is hard to find that spirit. While I'm sure there are still many New Yorkers continuing to good work without getting headlines, what we hear about most these days is squabbles over the design of the memorial and fights over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque." Then, of course, there is the ego-drenched ugliness of the so-called "war on terror" that 9/11 spawned, a "war" carried out with the support of many among the American people. The spirit of those early weeks seems, if anything, to have degenerated into business worse than usual.
The pattern at work here, then, seems to be uncommon love and altruism during a crisis, followed by a reversion to our usual self-centeredness once the crisis passes. So, I got to thinking: Why not simply choose to make our altruistic "disaster-relief mode" a permanent state of affairs? Why not follow Dorothy Day's example and keep that spirit alive even after things return to "normal"?
According to the author of A Course in Miracles, we don't have to wait for a "disaster" as we define it to go into this mode. For in his view, everyday life on earth, with occasional inspiring exceptions, is an ongoing state of disaster. The "big" disasters like 9/11 and the current situation in Japan are just more extreme versions of the same dynamics that run our world every day.
Sadly, the Course is clear that most of the time we are listening to our egos, and our choice to do this brings nothing but "chaos and disaster" (T-4.VI.3:3). The instant of separation from God and one another that brought about the entire world we see was, in the Course's words, "the instant of disaster" (T-27.VII.12:4). And there are numerous passages in the Course that describe the constant death and destruction endemic to "normal" life on earth (see, for instance, T-13.In.2 and M-27.1-3). Yes, as Course students know, the world is a dream, with no effect on the invulnerable beings we really are. But as long as we remain entrenched in our egos, the world is a "long dream of disaster" (W-pI.72.2:1).
Given this, it should not come as a surprise that, according to guidance Helen Schucman received, the Course itself is in essence a response to the disaster of the current state of the world. I'm referring here to her well-known "celestial speed-up" guidance, guidance she was given when she asked why the Course was coming through her. In Helen's words, Jesus told her the Course came because
the world situation was worsening at an alarming pace. People all over the world were being called back to help, and were developing what to them were highly unexpected talents, each making his individual contribution to an overall, prearranged plan. I had apparently agreed to take down a course in miracles which the Voice would dictate to me as part of the agreement, and my doing it was actually my reason for coming….People had reached a point where they were losing more than they were gaining. Thus because of the acute emergency, the usual slow, evolutionary process of spiritual development was being by-passed in what might be called a "celestial speed-up." I could sense the urgency that lay behind this explanation…The feeling was conveyed to me that time was running out. (Absence from Felicity, 1st ed., pp. 201-202)
Though he doesn't use the exact word, it's clear from these lines that the Course's author sees the current world situation is a disaster. It is an acute emergency. It's getting worse at an alarming pace. There is an urgent need. Time is running out. Therefore, people all over the world are being thrust into the role of what could, in essence, be described as "disaster-relief worker."
Helen's particular role in this was to scribe A Course in Miracles. But apparently, each one of us has a particular role in the plan to dig us out of the rubble the ego has wrought. Each of us is part of the celestial bucket brigade. Ready or not, we're part of the disaster-relief team, called to help in the acute emergency. And this crisis isn't likely to be fully resolved any time soon.
For some of us, A Course in Miracles is meant to be our disaster-relief manual. What can we do as Course students to carry out the role that has been given us? Our first responsibility, as always, is to walk the path of the Course with all the dedication we can muster—studying its teachings, doing its practices, and extending miracles as the Holy Spirit directs. With the Course's help, we can come to recognize the liberating truth that all disasters are completely unreal (as Lesson 14 tells us), and at the same time help others find relief from their pain and suffering within this dream of disaster.
What forms might this help take? When it comes to Japan, this can take many forms. If we live there, we can do our part in the ways Thomas describes, and many more. If we don't live there, we can donate money to the relief effort. (Here is one link for that.) And of course, we can pray for everyone involved. The Circle Course Community, in fact, has started daily prayers for Japan at 11 am Eastern Time (US). I encourage you to join us.
In addition to helping Japan, of course, each one of us has our own part to play in relieving the larger disaster engendered by the ego's rule. We are called to be miracle workers, extending selfless service to our brothers and sisters wherever we are. The form this takes is unique for each of us. But according to the Course's early dictation (much of which didn't make it into the published Course), most often miracles take the form of "little" words and deeds of kindness, love, and courtesy toward others—like Japanese people opening their homes to people needing water and going door to door to see if everyone is okay. This is something we all can do, in our own small way, every day.
So let's resolve, this time, not to let the moment of inspiration pass. Perhaps this time, if we really put our minds to it, we can hold onto it and spread it. Perhaps this time, like Dorothy Day, we can build upon that inspiration and continue extending loving kindness to our brothers and sisters long after Japan has left the headlines. Perhaps this time, we will go into "permanent disaster-relief mode." If we do so, we will bring the day closer when we will all hear "the joyful tidings that disaster is not real, and reality is not disaster" (T-16.II.8:5). We will bring the day closer when the inspiring words of Lesson 75 will be fully true:
Today we celebrate the happy ending to your long dream of disaster. There are no dark dreams now. The light has come. Today the time of light begins for you and everyone. It is a new era, in which a new world is born. The old one has left no trace upon it in its passing. Today we see a different world, because the light has come. (W-pI.75.2:1-7)