I was wondering what we would eat when the last jar of peanut butter was gone when Kathy stuck her head through the door to let me know her strove was working and offered to heat up a can of soup.
“Our stove works, but we don’t have any water,” she said.
It was the morning after Hurricane Sandy. Time had slowed to a breath-by-breath situation. Life as I’d known it was irretrievably broken, smeared with sludge and feces from our town’s sewer system treatment plant, which had broken during the storm surge and contaminated our water supply. The stench seeped through the walls, nauseating me.
Every tiny movement required a decision. If you drink bottled water, where will you pee? If you move something, how many steps through slime will it take to reach that canister of anti-bacterial wipes? You can’t carry them with you because there is no safe place to put them down.
A few months before the storm, my father and uncle came to me in three separate dreams, warning me that there would be an emergency and I should stock up on fresh, clean water. There were thirteen gallons upstairs and twenty-four bottles of drinking water. Since the house was becoming toxic with bacteria, we were going to leave the next day—if I could find someone nearby who would let Bogart and me stay for a couple of nights until I figured out where to go next.
All that was running through my head as I gave Kathy a gallon of water to take across the street to her own damaged home. She could come back if she needed more.
A bone-chilling cold settled in as the October afternoon light started to fade. Soon, it would be dark and I did not look forward to a second night upstairs in that cramped crawl space.
Ten minutes later, Kathy returned, holding two cups of hot tea. I felt like crying. Her kindness let me feeling cared for and supported. It was the gift of empathy in action. We were in it together. We hugged, and in that moment of having lost everything, we were rich.
The Richest Man in the World
That stays in my mind like a Post-it, reminding me of a photojournalism assignment to shoot pictures of gold panners in the Madre de Dios jungle, a forgotten corner of the Peruvian rainforest. Our government-issued Ford pick-up truck had gotten stuck behind a mudslide, which had buried the one-lane road under ten feet of muck. After an uncomfortable, cold night trying to sleep in the truck, the driver and our guide joined a crew of volunteers who were shoveling out. Looking at the mountain of mud and the pace at which the crew was working, the driver guesstimated it would take around five hours before the road was drivable.
For some reason that I don’t understand, I had no fear about being alone there and went for a walk in the early morning cloud forest where I got splashed with cloudlets of dew clinging to the trees. Pushing away branches and stepping carefully over slick, wet rocks, I entered a clearing where a skinny, bearded man with one tooth was living in a bamboo lean-to, covered with a blue tarp. We stared at each other—two creatures from different worlds. Maybe I was just an exotic animal from another, unfamiliar jungle.
New Strength from Ancient Wisdom
We nodded, exchanged “Buenos dias,” and then he pointed to a large rock next to there and motioned for me to sit.
Modeling his half-kneeling position, I watched him carefully pour water from his aluminum pot to a chipped white enamel cup. Foraging around in his lean-to, he retrieved a nearly empty can of powdered milk and measured two large spoonfuls into the cup. Maintaining eye contact, he stirred carefully until the powdered milk had dissolved. Then he gave me his cup and motioned for me to drink.
“Thank you but I cannot take this. It’s your breakfast,” I said. He insisted, repeating the motion for drinking, pointing first at the cup, then at me. As I sipped the hot beverage, his weather-beaten face broke into the most radiant smile I had ever seen. This man, who possessed next to nothing, looked like my eating his breakfast was the greatest gift he could receive. I couldn’t get over it. His happiness filled the space around the sputtering re, expanding into the clearing and beyond, to the cloud forest itself. He kept thanking me for taking his breakfast. When I offered him money, he refused.
I had met the most generous and clearly, the richest man in the world.
Fast-forward several decades to the morning after Sandy. I had no idea what to do next. Neither did anyone around me. Without phone service, there was no way to call for help. But help was already there. That cup of tea affirmed it while simultaneously bringing me back to that morning where I first encountered the gift of humility. Between then and now, I have started to understand the power of humility, which opens the way for us to embrace life as it is—like it or not—without regret for what we don’t have. With humility, our sense of entitlement dissolves and we give thanks.
From THE FIVE GIFTS: Discovering Hope, Healing and Strength When Disaster Strikes (Health Communications, Inc.)