Natural Disasters Are the New Cancer -- How Do We Cope With Incurable Weather?

Spectators walk past a severely damaged oceanfront house in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways, Monday, Nov. 19,
Spectators walk past a severely damaged oceanfront house in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways, Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, in New York. The house was one of many oceanfront homes inspected by the New York City Department of Buildings who found it structurally unsafe to enter or live in. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Just like knowing someone with cancer, almost everyone has either lived through a natural disaster or has a relative who has in the past few years -- whether a hurricane, fire, drought, tornado, flood, earthquake or hail. Very few places are left that have not felt the wrath and devastation of this raging virus. Every populated continent on Earth experienced a significant natural disaster in 2011, and this year will be worse.

How does our inner world mirror the outer in these turbulent times? Do we simply tweet about it, or make Instagram collage boards of the destruction and bury our heads in the sand? Believing we can change the world is quickly sounding cliché.

What natural disasters have you experienced, and how did they impact you? Our family can't seem to get around it. Last year, we experienced the wrath of Hurricane Irene in two states. Our hometown in Connecticut received a direct hit, leaving everyone without power for 11 days and delaying the opening of school. We tried to escape to higher ground in Vermont, and were stranding on top of the mountain for days as most of the roads to be flooded and covered bridges were washed away. One month later came the billion-dollar blizzard, leaving millions without power in the cold. Surely that would be it for us, right? Wrong.

This summer we vacationed in Colorado and watched in agony as the state was torched with wildfires from one end to the other, consuming land, homes and wildlife. Shaken, we then moved into our new home in rural Nebraska, and saw firsthand the unprecedented drought affecting our nation's food supply with parched clay fields, atrophied crops, hail damaged homes, and months of record heat.

Hurricane Sandy survivors: How are you managing the aftermath of the biggest storm in our nation's history, with costs now running into the billions? Our hometown was hit again, with losses that pale in comparison to our neighbors in New York and New Jersey who are still without power in many cities. The stark truth is: When will we stop being surprised that it can't happen again? How do we get ahead of the next wave?

During this time, I have been reading So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World, the newest book by Margaret Wheatley, best-selling author of Leadership and the New Science, Turning to One Another and Perseverance. Wheatley has worked in think tanks and community organizations in preparing urban areas for natural disasters, and has come to a stark and sobering conclusion that there simply is no cure. We cannot change the message, or work harder to turn things around. Instead, in order to survive, we have to become warriors of the human spirit.

I spoke with Wheatley about the compelling and sobering insights in her book, and what it is going to take for thought leaders and change agents to move beyond despair and exhaustion about everything from the weather to politics. She believes we can transform our grief, outrage, and frustration into the skills of insight and compassion, to serve this dark time with bravery, decency and gentleness.

Our old ways of assuming a problem has a singular cause and a simple solution is crippling our ability to effectively instigate lasting and useful change. Pointing fingers is not going to reopen the subways. Wheatley points out we are no longer in a world that functions based on "reductionist" thinking, where everything is based on cause and effect. Remember the chatter on the news during the wrath of Sandy? The storm is Obama's fault, and he timed this to get a boost in the polls before the election. We can fix this if we throw out FEMA. The Red Cross is a sham, and no one at ConEd can flip the switch in Manhattan. Whose head will roll for this?

If we have any hope of surviving what now seems incurable, Wheatley emphasizes we must embrace the concept of emergence -- of working with what is in front of us, while adapting over and over again. "In an emergent world, nothing useful gets revealed by dissection. You can't work backwards," Wheatley said.

Emergence demands a different relationship with life, where we're curious, open, alert. The only thing we can predict is that life will surprise us. We can't see what is coming until it arrives, and once something has emerged, we have to work with what is. We can't keep pushing ahead, blustering on with our now outdated plans and dreams. And it doesn't help to deny what has emerged. We need to be present and willing to accept this new reality.

Wheatley stressed in order to truly live in this new world of constant natural disasters, just like learning to live with cancer, we need to feel despair first; it is appropriate and essential that we do so. And we need to enter into the darkness of feeling lost, both literal and figurative; because it is the entry point for transformation.

Recognizing we are lost is key to survival. In the wilderness, it is common to recognize being lost and then frantically run this way and that, panting, sweating and internally going into a panic. All mountaineers know this is a great way to die. In order to survive, one must accept being lost, and yes, even to be without hope. If we can do these things, we can then let go of fear. Only then can we move forward with a new strategy to rebuild our lives -- around the fury of the weather.

Those who have gone through these hurricanes know something about the emergence of a silver lining quite worthy of hope -- the return of humanity. What is the gift in being without power? It brings out the forgotten blessing of just being together. Without the constant distractions of electric-powered necessities, millions of people got out of their houses and meet the neighbors. Those with generators shared showers and hot cups of coffee. Guys with chain saws banded together to cut down fallen trees and kids discovered there is plenty to do without devices.

Wheatley reflected:

No matter how despairing the circumstances, it is our relationships that offer us comfort, guidance and joy. As long as we're together, as long as we feel others supporting us, we can persevere. I have learned this working with communities uprooted by wars, hurricanes, famines, dictators. No matter what tragedy people are experiencing, their suffering is always alleviated when they learn that others are standing with them.

How has the weather affected your inner world or community experience? I'd love to hear your thoughts and stories below.