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Rev. Amy Ziettlow

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Responding to Tragedy, Restoring the World

Posted: 03/21/11 09:05 PM ET

How do we respond to mass tragedy?

One example: Steven Tyler, Jenifer Lopez, Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest, the judges and host of American Idol, opened Tuesday night's show in somber darkness requesting that we purchase downloads of the night's songs from ITunes in order for a portion of those dollars to go to support relief efforts in Japan. Then the normal show began highlighting long forgotten songs from the 80's with millions of phone and text votes to follow. We can be motivated to text "vote" for our favorite singer, but can we be motivated to give?

And if we give, what impact does it make?

Although the events in Japan impact a far greater population than what we experienced after Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, the effects of mass tragedy on a community I think must be the same. The shock, the paralysis, the denial, the anxiety, the displacement, the horror of sudden death, the fear of what each day may hold, the motherless children, the childless parents, the abandoned pets, the utter ineptness of support systems in the face of massive upheaval and loss, and then the reality hits: This is the new normal. Every day is now focused on recovery, and recovery happens unnoticed over years through the passing of millions of heartbeats.

In Don Delillo's Point Omega, one of the main characters is fascinated by Douglas Gordon's performance piece, "24 Hour Psycho." The piece slows down the film Psycho into a 24 hour time period. Watching the piece can feel excruciating. A lone shower ring spins for over 5 minutes. Suspense is broken down to the heartbeat. As critics write, the piece picks up themes expressed in Gordon's work as a whole: "recognition and repetition, time and memory, complicity and duplicity, authorship and authenticity, darkness and light." Even just reading about the piece through Delillo's eyes, I saw that "24 Hour Psycho" mimics recovery. Time slows and a hyper sensitivity to this breath, this choice, this moment emerges. Though bored to tears, you cannot look away.

About 9 months after Katrina, I traveled to Chicago for meetings. The trip marked the first time that I had been away from the Gulf. I was thrown by how different the rest of the world was. When I returned, colleagues asked about my trip over lunch.

I replied, "It was good. But ... did you know that in other places they don't talk about Katrina all the time?"

There was a long pause.

Finally, one of the nurses spoke up, "What do they talk about?"

When you are in recovery the world slows down and life outside that bubble ceases to exist let alone make sense. Helplessness threatens to wash over you every day and carry you out to the island of victimhood.

Where to find hope?

I tend to read when I feel discouraged, so I turned to My Grandfather's Blessings written by one of my heroes in end of life care, Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. She writes eloquently about facing personal illness and disability and the importance of serving others versus trying to help or fix others. In the final section of her book entitled, "Restoring the World," she writes of a theological concept from the Kabbalah called Tikkun Olam, meaning to repair and restore the world. Drawing upon a creation myth where the world begins when cosmic light breaks forth and is scattered throughout the universe, She writes of how Tikkun Olam points to our purpose in life starting on page 326:

"The purpose of human life is to uncover these sparks of light and restore the world to its original wholeness. Everyone and everything we encounter is a shell or container for a hidden spark of holiness ... We restore the holiness of the world through our lovingkindness and compassion. Everyone participates. It is a collective task ...

It often seems that the problems in the world are large and overwhelming and there are limits to what we can accomplish as a single person or even as a single group. It can be profoundly disheartening. But Tikkun Olam means that we each make a difference and we can heal the world ...

Much in life distracts us from our true nature, captures the Self in bonds of greed, desire, numbness, and unconsciousness. But every act of service is an evidence that the soul is stronger than all that and can draw us toward it despite all."

And so I am reminded to be simple. Give. Think. Pray. Read. Write. Listen. Speak. Hope. My job is not to save the world, but to serve, and through serving contribute to the restoration of holiness in our world.

To read more about death, dying and grief from Amy Ziettlow visit www.familyscholars.org.