Robin Youngblood was having an uneventful Saturday morning, chatting with a friend in her Oso, Washington, home, when she heard a loud CRACK. According to The Seattle Times, out her window she saw a 25-foot tall wave of mud rushing toward her home. There was no time to react. Youngblood and her friend were catapulted out of her home and covered with mud and debris. They are the lucky ones. As of March 25, 14 people are reported dead and 176 missing.
Two weeks ago, while residents slept, ate and prepared for the start of their day, a gas leak triggered an explosion that leveled two Harlem apartment buildings. Eight people died and at least 55 families lost everything they owned.
One minute you’re asleep. Or you’re chatting with a friend. And the next, the place you store all your security — your home — is gone. It’s really a terrifying thought, isn’t it? It’s enough to make you call the gas company at the slightest hint of a strange odor or wonder if the ground under your feet is truly as secure as it seems. But for me, these inexplicable tragedies have the opposite impact. If you’ve never lived through disaster, you might think you can control them. But once you have first-hand knowledge of all the powers in the world that are greater than yourself you realize: I can’t control it, so why let it control me?
I live a block from the beach in a house that has already been flooded once by Hurricane Sandy. There is no guarantee that such a catastrophe will not happen again. But this week, when friends were reaching out to us concerned about reports of coastal flooding related to yet another Nor’easter, my husband and I had an identical response: Bring it. After what we’ve been through, some water in the streets isn’t enough to scare us. But even beyond that, we have accepted that we have absolutely no control over our fate. So why waste energy worrying about it?
Having survived disaster, both physically and mentally, we have also glimpsed behind the curtain to learn a rare truth: The sense of security that we used to have, that most people have, is a farce. People ask us all the time, “Do you really still want to live by the water after all you’ve been through?” My response is twofold: #1: “Are you going to buy my house?” and #2: “Despite everything, I can’t help but love where I live.”
But the deeper answer, which most people don’t want to hear, is that none of us is every truly safe. Ever. Sure, another hurricane could come and rip the roof off of my house, bring the ocean through my front door and send me spiraling back into refugee status. But I know that and I accept it and somehow, there’s power in embracing that reality. When people ask “Do you still want to live there?” the question comes from their own fear that someday, something equally terrifying, inexplicable and uncontrollable could happen to them. But the lie they tell themselves is that it won’t, because they’re not so crazy as we are, living in someplace so risky, a veritable bull’s eye on our beachside home.
That’ll never happen to me. Ah, such a sweet sentiment. The truth is that no one can say that with certainty. And knowing this is somehow empowering. The things that keep me up at night have diminished since living through Sandy. I used to worry constantly about finances and my career and our safety. But when you let go off fear, it loses power over you. And suddenly I sleep better. More creative ideas percolate in my mind. I take more risks, such as letting my kids cross the street by themselves and launching myself into a new business plan that I have no guarantee will actually be successful.
Now I’m not going to lie and say I live this zen-like, worry-free existence. But when worries do crop up I look at them through a new lens. My question now isn’t, “What am I going to do?!” it’s “Do I have it in me to handle this?” And the answer, more than ever, is yes. I’ve been through so much and it has strengthened me. It’s emboldened me, made me more resilient and more capable of standing tall in situations where in the past I’d cower.
A few days ago, as we were saying good-bye to our dog while leaving the house, my 6-year-old son Miles declared that Sandy, the storm he knows very well, gave us two gifts. Gifts? I thought. I have to hear this. “We got our house fixed back and we got a dog,” he said.
Perspective is everything, isn’t it? And it’s truly a gift to be able to see that good can come out of a bad situation. Now of course, good is not guaranteed and the hard times can be inexplicably difficult to traverse. I don’t mean to minimize that. In Sandy, in Harlem, in Oso, people lost their lives and loved ones had to shoulder that loss. There is no salve for that. But I do know that tragedy not only has the potential to strengthen us, it will undoubtedly change us. And I can only hope that in some way, for my fellow Sandy survivors, and for the people in Oso and Harlem, it’s for the better.