The MLK march was cancelled – with the police escorts all working the Montecito Mudstorm recovery. What now? Warning: when you cannot find a way to help, you will feel helpless.
Helpless is the distance of a dozen miles between me and the disaster in our community. The nighttime deluge ran a mere 2 inches of rain – half of that in 15-minutes – from the top of canyons to the bottom, coalescing like a sonic boom into a wall of water sweeping down to the ocean. Boulders, trees, utility poles, cars, houses and humans mixed indiscriminately into the flash flood, leaving a trail of muddy destruction, eerily opening a wide access field between once-gated, walled off, white-wood estates. There is enough mud to fill 30,000 dump trucks, it was said¹. Lives lost and displaced, a week later still unfound, residents now scattered into hotels and couches across Santa Barbara: these are the lives altered into forced change. These evoke compassion and concern, but not the ones this essay is about.
Yes, these are the ones who should have our attention, but this is about those who feel helpless to help. The ones sitting across town, obsessing for updates, compassion antennas on full alert with nowhere to send the signals. Does life go on? Do we work as normal, even with a few empty desks around for those evacuated or stuck on the other side of closed roads? Do I cheer during a game in the high school soccer stadium, with rescue helicopters periodically going overhead, visitor’s team beach back-dropped by the Montecito hills?
Overall a feeling of restless helplessness pervades. Giving updates to out of towners does not feel like help. Writing little essays about it does not feel like help. Even praying – the world’s oldest work-from-anywhere practice – feels small: what are we praying for again? – with twenty dead and more unfound, the search for “God’s will” is muddier than Olive Mill road.
Under the mud
The thing is, it’s not my first helpless rodeo. Helplessness paralyzes me in other areas too, like cancer. And inequality. And racism. After all, it is Martin Luther King Jr day in America. And perhaps King’s most understated quality was looking out across the spitefulness and segregation entrenched in the South, and still finding a way to walk past helplessness and into action. What set him apart was his ability to see the size of the mess and still grab a shovel.
Whereas Montecito started on dry ground and ended up under the mud, Africans in America started under the mud of slavery and have been digging their way out ever since. From MLK’s mountaintop, he could look back upon three centuries of slavery, oppression, and segregation. He didn’t even need to squint his eyes to imagine it; he was at ground zero: both injured by, and a first responder to, injustice.
If these years of institutional and heartfelt racist “mud” were measured in dump trucks, it might be a million loads. How much has been removed since MLK’s day depends on where, and who, you ask. But surely fifty years is not enough to clear the roads and find willing drivers, let alone remove the rubble.
“We just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” – MLK, Jr, from I’ve Been to the Mountaintop
And as upset as I am at the mudslides of injustice in our country’s history, it’s another year that I’ve stayed home. Just as I’m comfortably – but uncomfortably – home now, watching the story of the floods unfold, glued to the bad news on my TV, wanting only to know more, to be “informed”. And today the two meet: the Montecito Mudslides cancelling the MLK March. Guess I’ll have more time to go home and get informed.
Unfortunately, it seems the more informed I am, the more my soul is troubled. Instead of moving me to action, each twitter-sized teaspoonful of mud makes the pile that much more daunting.
What I want is to DO. Step aside, first responders, and let me get in there with boots on feet and gloves on hand. I’ll drive the trucks, I’ll host the families, I’ll cook the meals. Except, there’s no one within reach.
And this essay is about feeling helpless. I’m writing about two very different things – mudslides and racism – but in my head they are connected by my feeling of helplessness around them.
It’s not asking for compassion – that is needed for those in the mud.
It’s only asking if you might feel helpless too.
If the mountain of mud seems high and your shovel too small.
I wonder if you, too, might be so stuck on the couch – whatever your cause – that even small ways to make a difference seem too insignificant. That when your ONE action gets cancelled like the MLK March, you feel the desperation of waiting another year to do something for the cause. Hmmm, maybe I should be doing more than one hour per year on this.
Watching on TV usually means I’m probably safe from the flood reaching me, but also safe from anything being asked of me.
There is a safe distance when I see a disaster happening in Texas or the Philippines. These mudslides are different: this time I personally remember how that roadway looked before it was overrun with mud; I watch the victim’s pictures scroll as one waiting to recognize a face. And there is that – everyone is only a degree or two away in this town, a doctor I have visited, a pew-mate at church, someone’s friend or uncle or co-worker.
That personal connection makes a difference, I’ve found, in how far we’ll go to help. I was only vaguely aware of the challenges of being gay in America, until a family member came out. Now I’m listening. And willing to compassionately agitate to make this a better place for queer people. As a white person, I’ve often wondered if racism would disappear more quickly if young white people we already knew and thought of as “like us” – one day “came out” as black. Suddenly we listen. And see the world through their eyes. And seek the changes needed to treat everyone equally.
I’m beginning to suspect my being overly informed, and feeling helpless, could be related. The more time I’ve spent getting informed, the less time I’ve used to forge personal connections. And that could make all the difference.
♦ weekendswell ♦
This post is also available on Medium.
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All photos taken by the remarkable Mike Eliason. For many more see @SBCFireInfo.
¹The emergency permit reported here allows for “300,000 cubic yards of accumulated sediment… which translates to 30,000 trips.” Trucks typically hold 15 tons (10 cubic yards of wet dirt), so about 450,000 tons of mud.
(note: There are many differences between Montecito’s Mudslides and America’s inequality, of course, but this one may be the most important: everyone agrees that there is a huge problem in Montecito right now. All resources can focus on how to improve it.
This is not the case for the inequality of wages, justice system, health among others.
Instead, voices are saying the problem is not so big. Or the wound is already healed. Or that those of us with tailwinds at our backs want to act like our own hard work was the only factor to success. Or believing the “American Dream” gives everyone an equal starting line, because so-and-so’s grandfather started with nothing and – look at him! )
For more facts, see Stanford Report
For more self-reflection, see The 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness