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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Doing Small Things

By Silvia Uribe

The recent fire in the Goleta hills and the community meetings that have touched on volunteerism made me think that volunteering and helping others is something that doesn't always come naturally. This emergency reminded me of a past experience that changed me forever.

It was September of 1985, when a devastating, deadly earthquake hit Mexico City. Tens of thousands of people died, most of them were buried beneath their collapsed home, office, or hospital. My family and I were physically untouched. We were one of the few lucky ones who did not have a relative die, either. After the 8.3 shake we lost the power, we couldn't drink the contaminated water due to ruptured pipes, and all we could hear were the sirens of ambulances day and night amplified by an otherwise eerie silence; no cars or buses were out on the streets, and no people were walking around going about their life. Nothing but the smell of death and suffering permeated my beloved city.

Around the area where I was living no buildings suffered any damage, but it was one of the very few neighborhoods that didn't. When, after many hours, we got the power back, we could see that people were confused, desperate for help, food, and water. Some simply needed company and a shoulder to cry on. It was painful and traumatic to see their pain and their tears, to hear them crying, screaming and begging for firefighters and other rescue teams to dig up their loved ones, always hoping to find them alive. The simple thought of those trapped underneath, wounded for sure, and knowing that these lives were slipping away in hopelessness, was unbearable to me. The TV images showed shelters full with people who looked like zombies, walking around with no direction after loosing their hope and their soul after seeing the lifeless, covered body of their son, husband, sister, wife, mother or father. I couldn't deal with all that pain.

I wanted to do something to help, but what? It was too much pain to deal with, and I thought I lacked the skills needed in such a massive disaster, so I decided that getting away was the only way to escape from others' pain and my own. It was after the 6.5 after shock the next day when I couldn't handle it anymore. I practically dragged my husband to my parent's home outside the city. Like an ostrich with its head in the dirt, I stopped watching TV, listening to the radio, and reading newspapers on a daily basis. I would do it twice a week only hoping every time things would be back to normal. But every time, they were anything but normal.

When we finally went back to our own home in the city, some of the everyday normalcy had come back - people working, some traffic, no more sirens constantly screaming death - but I continued to feel helpless. The more time passed, the worse I felt, and the notion that I did nothing became terribly unsettling. However, taking action was never an option for me at the time, even though the need for help was still present everywhere. I kept repeating to myself that I was incapable of doing anything that would help mitigate the profound pains of the broken spirits. My encapsulation in my no less than "perfect" world had me immobilized, trapped in an invisible, yet unbreakable cage. I had a great husband who had a great job, a set of loving parents, I was about to become a mother, I had a lovely house in a nice and safe neighborhood, and a business of my own. Yes, it is true that I also had a few hiccups in my lifetime, nothing real big, but life went back to normal rather quickly every time.

I didn't know how to react to not perfect, hurtful, and plain unmanageable situations like the one I and almost 20 million others were going through; I didn't realize that I had every possibility to go out and help had I just put my feelings into action. With time, and little by little, I realized that I could have gone to the shelters and volunteered and kept company to those lonely ones. Or I could have helped dig up on the streets, or bring meals to the rescuers. It was too late by then. I realized that anything that I would have done, would have been of great help, and would have made a difference, but I was more self-absorbed in my own pain than thinking about other human beings.

This was a hard wake up call. I was ashamed of myself for months. I went from sadness to enragement, and from quietness to random explosions of anger, until I made a decision: This would never happen to me again. I would never overlook others' pain or needs, on a daily basis, and I would act to mitigate it to the full extent of my possibilities. I felt happy immediately (which was no less random.) I felt liberated when I realized, and accepted that we don't have to do any heroic things; that we only need to be there whenever a person needs us, no (not when it is most convenient for us) and offer the help that's needed, no strings attached. I abruptly realized that my well-known, predictable, "perfect" world instantaneously had become too small, too unreal, and too uncomfortable for me.

As a woman, mother, wife, and as a citizen of the world, I felt it was my duty to raise my children to be open to the world - as is - not as we want it to be, aware of its contrasts, its injustices, and its pains. Intuitively I knew that, by example, I could teach them to care about others, and offer their extended hand when needed.

And there I was, me. The pampered only-child being born again in my 20's, and thus having a new outlook in life! As weird as this sounds, it felt just fine. It took me a while to learn to do it right, though, at least to a point where I found a good balance between the needs of others and my own needs (I'm no saint, you know?). I made lots of mistakes in my quest to learn; giving too much (this too can be problematic at times,) or too little; helping in an untimely manner, letting people down, or being indiscrete when offering the help. After all these years, have I finally gotten it right? Maybe, or perhaps I still need to learn a lot more. I have the distinct feeling that this might be both a journey and a way of living. I only know that a peaceful feeling is present, that the whole experience is much more rewarding, and that I like living in the here and the now, being aware of others needs and being a resource whenever possible.

Wait. Isn't this for what spiritual leaders, from the past and the present, have constantly advocated? It took me 20+ years plus a large and devastating natural disaster to understand the message, but the good news is, I got it!

"Do small things with great love" - Mother Teresa

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latino perspective.

Cross-posted at

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