A Two-Word Lesson from Hurricane Irma

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Hurricanes in the Atlantic–awesome and fearsome.

Here in South Florida, we’ve just spent a couple of weeks with Hurricane Irma as a forbidding presence in our midst. We dreaded it, we prepped for it, we fled or hunkered down, we endured it–and now we’re recovering from it.

It’s been a long while since we last had a major hurricane tear through our state, and we’ve all learned lessons from the way it has disrupted our lives. One of the simplest lessons that I myself learned had its roots in two words that I heard repeated over and over as I shopped for water and batteries, filled the car with gas, and had one last meal at my favorite Greek restaurant before the onslaught.

The two words are “Stay safe.” And the response, also two words long, is “You, too.”

As the storm approached, this tiny benediction was intoned by all of us here in Florida. We traded this wish for safety with grocery cashiers, business associates, friends who were fleeing, friends who were staying put. Neighbors and strangers. And we seemed to mean it. We really wished each other well, wished that we would all be safe and dry, that all our homes would still be in one piece, after Irma had left us in her wake.

And the wish for safety had no conditions: none of us inquired about the other’s religion or politics or ethnic heritage. Those details had no place in the intense–and tense–buildup to the storm. It was simply human to human, a wish for good things to happen to a fellow inhabitant of the earth. Stay safe. You, too.

The warmth of this interpersonal exchange was on my mind, then, as I followed the news leading up to Irma’s arrival. In online publications and on social media sites, the comment sections were invariably filled with wishes for the storm to go somewhere else! Leave Florida alone! Hit the mountains of Cuba–that’ll slow it down! Turn and strike the Carolinas instead!

Do you see where I’m going with this? When looking at a map, we see only shapes, not people. And when a major hurricane is bearing down on the southeastern United States, for us Floridians, the peninsula-shape that represents Florida becomes the most important shape of all. Hit one of those other shapes, why don’t you? We beam directional thoughts from our brains to the storm. Hit one of those Carolina-shapes, or one of those shapes across the Gulf of Mexico. Or scrape across all those tiny island shapes–which are the Leeward and which are the Windward, anyway? Hit any shape but ours.

If we stop to think about what we’re saying, of course, we realize that we’re wishing death and destruction not on a bunch of colorful shapes, but on a bunch of fellow humans.

Does this make us terrible people? Tricky question.

Part of it is the survival instinct, of course: we all want to survive the storm. It’s natural to wish it away from us, to mentally send it anywhere but HERE.

But part of it may also be the tendency we have to think of people who are not us as a faceless, monolithic them. This perspective makes it easier to dismiss them. To mentally send a killer storm to their doorstep.

And when they’re very far away, in countries whose shapes we might not even be able to find on a map, it might make it easier to think of them as a little less human than we are. To imagine that their drought or flood or terrible storm is not quite as important as ours is. Sometimes it might even make it easier to drop a bomb on them.

Right here at home, in the context of the hurricane, we just might forget that all those people in the Carolinas, in Cuba, in the tiny islands, in the Gulf states, are human, and precious, just as we are. When we meet someone face to face, on the other hand–the grocery clerk or the neighbor–we recognize their humanity, and our wish for them in the face of a terrible storm is not “I hope it gets you and not me.” Our wish is “Stay safe.”

This realization reinforces my conviction that global story exchanges can make real changes in the way we, and our students, see the world. When we write or draw or dance our own stories and share them with people in another country, and those people share their own stories with us, we start to recognize the individuality, the humanity, in people we may never have given a second thought to. People we may have simply lumped together as one big group, people we may have previously identified only by their religion or their culture or the shape of the place they live. People we may have referred to simply as “one of those tiny island-shapes in the Caribbean.”

So be excited about the potential inherent in global story exchanges. Share your stories. Learn about the world through the stories of others. Discover the humanity in each of us. Take it from Irma: wish safety for all of us.

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