Wisdom//

Responding to Tragedy

How disaster provides perspective

When disaster strikes your community, it provides a different perspective. As we walked past a freeway completely under water — with the green road signs hanging 20-plus feet above ground serving as the only indication that, this is, in fact, a highway, not a river — one of my friends commented: “It’s kind of awe inspiring in a way, until you realize the devastation that it represents.”

As we wandered around the city, struck by the amount of flooding and devastation, the instinct is to be overwhelmed. To not know what to do. When you can’t get out, when you are stuck to a collection of back streets that aren’t flooded with no access to anywhere else, the temptation is to stay put, turn on the TV, and let your day be consumed with watching video after video of devastation.

That temptation needs to be avoided. Anxiety freezes us, it causes panic and a desire to stay put. I got asked why (and even criticized for) we held an impromptu run for my collegiate athletes the day after the hurricane, and my answer is this: normalcy. When you go through these tragedies (this is my fourth major hurricane), you get trapped in anxiety mode. You lose your sense of power and control, feeling unable to do anything. By establishing even an hour of normalcy in your day, it helps you return to function. It zaps you out of the “gawking” anxiety mode and reminds you that you, too, have power and control. If you can get a run in, then you can make plans to volunteer, donate items, check roadways or homes for people, cook meals or do whatever you can.

We are not superhumans who feel no emotion. Dread and despair can overwhelm us. A hint of normalcy empowers people. It’s one of the reasons why after a tragedy, sporting events are often needed and bring the city or country together.

A quick update from someone who has driven most of inner Houston and walked/jogged miles of roads now to check things out. First, the devastation is insane, but the entire city of Houston is not under water. Certain areas escaped harm while others will suffer damage for weeks, if not months. It’s important to remember this because the perspective from watching TV is that the entire city is under water. While I am not downplaying the devastation (it’s the worst flood I’ve ever seen…and I’ve lived in Houston for 28 years of my life), it’s important to communicate this. Panic is not something we need.

As I’ve heard from friends, family, and random strangers, it’s touching to see the concern for myself and others in the city of Houston. Thank you. I am okay. My team is okay. My own home escaped flooding, though our street was underwater and it was an extremely anxious time for me. My parent’s house in the suburbs escaped as well. Their backyard flooded, but it did not reach the home. Some parents of student athletes lost homes and apartments. The university largely escaped the bulk of the flooding.

I encourage those who want to help to donate and offer support. If anyone is interested in helping, feel free to reach out and I will do my best to direct you to the right place. I’ve opened up my home for any who are coming down to help with the cleanup and one couch is already taken. The spirit and generosity of people are amazing.

Steve Magness is a coach to world-class runners, as well as the author of the new book, Peak Performance. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness

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