In the Calm Before the Electoral Storm, Let's Ask Some Big Questions

We're in the calm between the storms. The one created by Mother Nature has passed; the man-made electoral storm is about to begin. Though the two presidential candidates are furiously criss-crossing the swing states, making their "closing arguments" and trying to motivate their bases and convince the undecideds, the campaign is, largely, finished. There's little we can do now but wait -- and, of course, read endless polls and predictions that will have even less meaning in a matter of hours. But as we wait for the oncoming electoral storm, we're still getting reports of Hurricane Sandy's devastation. According to Mayor Bloomberg, up to 40,000 New Yorkers may be in need of new housing. Gas lines are still blocks long in parts of New York and New Jersey. And the death toll has reached 110.

Much remains to be done to help those in need (a list of ways to donate or volunteer can be found here). But in the short window before the media goes All Election, All the Time, we should take a moment to ask some big questions. That's what I've found myself doing over nearly a week of living by candlelight once the sun set -- largely, and involuntarily, disconnected from the day-to-day minutiae that I would have ordinarily considered important. It's amazing how quickly one's priorities get completely reordered. Not having much ability to connect with my outer world, I decided to embrace the moment and connect with my inner one.

The first and most obvious big question I asked myself: Why is it so difficult for us to look around the corner and prevent upcoming disasters, or at least mitigate their impact? Especially in cases in which, while we might not know exactly what form it will take, we have a pretty good idea of what we need to do to protect ourselves. "In Sandy's wake must be a wake-up call," writes Rep. Ed Markey. "Climate change is no longer some far off issue. It's at our doorstep right now. We must consider how to address the underlying factors that are fueling these extreme weather events." New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was even more blunt: "Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality."

We know what's happening. We know it will keep happening, and we know it's going to get worse. At the same time, even without the battering by superstorms like Sandy, our infrastructure is crumbling. And now the need to fix it is all the more urgent. "The new normal of rising waters and other consequences of intensifying climate change has arrived a generation ahead of schedule," writes Robert Kuttner. "As Americans grasp what has occurred and the likelihood of more intense storm surges in coming years, it will become clear that we need massive public investments to keep our coastlines above water."

This, of course, is where leadership comes in. The job of a leader is to look around the corner, see what's coming and create consensus around the need to confront the looming crisis before the iceberg -- or supercharged hurricane -- hits. Right now we're being bombarded by polls, but polls are only focused on the here and now -- and so are any leaders who rely on them. Polls taken before 9/11 showed that people weren't that concerned about terrorism. But it would have helped if our leaders had been.

And yet a seemingly endless election season is ending tomorrow and climate change has barely been raised. Though there are clearly differences between the two parties on the issue, neither has been particularly eager to articulate them. "Climate change is to the Republican base what leprosy once was to healthy humans -- untouchable and unmentionable," writes Timothy Egan. "Their party is financed by people whose fortunes are dependent upon denying that humans have caused the earth's weather patterns to change for the worse." But as Egan points out, there hasn't been a lot of leadership on the other side either: "President Obama has been silent on this issue of great import to his children, Sasha and Malia, and their children. He is afraid of those pockets of coal-mining, climate-change-denying voters in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio."

Fortunately during my throwback week, I was able to do a lot of reading by candlelight -- and I found myself drawn to a lot of spiritual reading. This passage from Matthew has obvious relevance:

"Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

"And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

"And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

"And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it." (Matthew 24-27)

Right now, we appear to be doething them not. And of course every spiritual tradition has a version of Matthew's verse. As do multiple myths and fables. One of the earliest was penned by one of my fellow countrymen, though he predates me by a couple of thousand years. I remember reading Aesop's fables to my daughters when they were little. The lessons are hard; they're about life not being easy, and about how actions have consequences. In the "Ant and the Grasshopper" a grasshopper is having a great time jumping and playing while an ant walks by him dragging an ear of corn:

"'Why not come and chat with me,' said the Grasshopper, 'instead of toiling and moiling in that way?'

"'I am helping to lay up food for the winter,' said the Ant, 'and recommend you to do the same.'

"'Why bother about winter?' said the Grasshopper; 'we have got plenty of food at present.' But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity."

Of course, lessons about building one's house upon a rock, or preparing for the days of necessity, can be taken to be warnings about more than just our physical world and our physical selves -- they're also about our metaphysical selves and the need to build our inner strength. Because just as we know for certain that our outer, physical infrastructure is going to be tested, so will our inner spiritual infrastructure. And even if we've done what we need to do to prepare for the days of necessity, we still never know what's going to happen to challenge and test us. That's why building our inner resilience is a lifelong task, and cannot be done in a weekend or during a visit to Home Depot.

"I always tell people, 'Sadness over suffering is natural and human. It's nothing to be ashamed of,'" Rev. James Martin told Jaweed Kaleem, our religious correspondent. Martin is a Jesuit priest who lives a block away from the now-iconic broken crane that dangled over 57th St. in Manhattan during the storm. "Part of the process is allowing yourself to go through these emotions," he said.

One person who's been thinking about these questions for years is Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which grew out of the death of his son, and, most recently, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World. "Nature is value-free," Kushner told Jaweed. "God's role is to motivate people to help neighbors and improve methods to predict hurricanes. God is found not in the problem, but in the resilience."

Yasir Qadhi, a Muslim cleric and dean at the AlMaghrib Institute, says events like these give us opportunities to reveal and improve our inner selves. "It is by combating evil that we show goodness," he says.

One of the best ways to shore up our inner lives and build our spiritual resilience is by reaching out to help others. Which is why, as Lisa Miller points out, religious groups often play a unique role in disaster relief:

"The government and religious groups can -- and should -- work together in a disaster. A religious response is not a weak or sentimental response. In the first 72 hours after a catastrophe, churches, synagogues and mosques have information that the government does not. They know where their members live. They know who's a shut-in, who's elderly, who's disabled. They know exactly whose house has burned down and how many children, and pets, usually live there. They can rally a community, as mine has, to put boots on the ground, feeding people and helping the government understand the scope of the problem."

A less expected group providing help has been the frustrated group of New York City Marathon runners, many of whom had already arrived in New York when Mayor Bloomberg canceled this year's race. A number of them have put their road-tested energy and determination to good use. "Instead of a foot race, we want a marathon of service," wrote Jacyln Larington in a press release about her newly formed group Marathon Relief Efforts (MORE). "This all started yesterday, with just me in my PJ's and," she wrote in an email, "just 24 hours later, there's an entire team of people helping me coordinate the efforts -- none of who I knew as of yesterday at 8:00 a.m." Similarly, there's the Facebook group New York Runners in Support of Staten Island, started by Dr. Jordan Metzl.

And I'm happy to say that AOL is also joining in. This weekend our CEO Tim Armstrong asked staffers everywhere to go out and buy $500-1,000 worth of relief provisions each, which would then be trucked up to New York and New Jersey and delivered to areas in need -- including areas covered by Patch, which has many team members working in devastated towns.

Tragedies like Sandy present an opportunity for us to take stock of where we are. As with most disasters, this one has brought out both the best and worst in people -- but mostly the best. Yes, there have been isolated instances of looting and petty crime, but there has also been an outpouring of desire to help and strengthen our bonds of connection.

Danielle Giaccio is a native Staten Islander who writes that it was "heart-wrenching" to see the devastation visited on her hometown, but also that she's "truly touched to see the absolutely remarkable and incredible support," and that "this hurricane has brought out the best in us."

This raises another big question: Why does it take a disaster to bring out the best in us? After all, we know that there are people desperately in need all the time, in every community, in every state. We know that there are 46 million people living in poverty right now. So why can't we sustain that best-self spirit even after these storm-battered communities get back on their feet?

In very real ways, the need to take care of our planet, and our need to take care of our spiritual selves by reaching out to care for others, is all of a piece.

"We need full cooperation based on a clear realization that we are all one," said the Dalai Lama. "Each and every individual's future depends on the entire humanity, especially right now."

And in an address in 1990 he laid out the mechanism for that cooperation:

"The human being is a social animal," he said. "If you have religion, very good; even without religion you can survive and you can manage, but without human affection we can't survive."

In a few hours, we're going to get lots and lots of results, but we shouldn't confuse them with answers. Those we'll have to keep looking for. And to find the answers to big questions, like "How can we consistently strengthen the bonds of connection and affection -- even without the provocation of a tragedy like Sandy?" we have to take the time to ask ourselves the big questions, even after the power is returned and we blow out the candles.

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