Trees and power lines are lying tangled across roads, barring passage to hospitals, loved ones and workplaces. Primitive states of living have been forced upon thousands of people who’ve never had to survive without air conditioning or refrigeration for more than a day at a time. Technologies considered essential to our generation are failing, powered by batteries that can only work alone for so long, and traffic lights are often dark, revealing confusion and ignorance even in our traffic patterns. This is the state of my city, struck three days ago by a damaging storm that left most of the population powerless during an extreme heat wave.
In the midst of the relative chaos that has ensued since the storm, one thing is abundantly clear: human nature engages in a civil war, pitting our innate desire to sustain ourselves against our inherent knowledge that we must sustain our community. Schools, churches and individuals have responded to the city’s crisis with a passion, cooperation and speed I never would have imagined, displaying selfless willingness to do what is necessary for the community at large. The camaraderie is, at times, almost tangible. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together, for better or worse; that we’ll help each other endure.
The deeply communal phenomenon that’s occurred over the past few days is hugely encouraging. Looking inward to my own heart reveals what is perhaps a more accurate and complete picture of human response to the situation—my desire to serve the suffering is tempered by the ever-present belief that I must first attend to the (perceived) necessities of my own life. That belief isn’t attractive when brought out in the open, and I think it’s also entirely inaccurate.
Service necessarily entails sacrifice: of preference, position, convenience, comfort, or any of a host of other things humans crave. So the thought that I will be free to serve after the demands of my existence and activities are satisfied is a bit naïve. Community infuses our lives with meaning, and sustaining myself at the expense of that community will ultimately be damaging not only to it but also directly to my life as an individual. It makes me wonder which need is dominant in each of us: sustaining self or sustaining community?