Contrary to my habit of short showers, instilled at Jewish summer camp during the California water crisis of my youth, I reposed in the steamy Nirvana for something just shy of an eternity. And at its conclusion, I had an urge to put it up as my Facebook status; an urge that I quelled, choosing instead to remain silent about my newly-restored electricity.
The past few days have been challenging ones. The Lehigh Valley, where my family and I reside, was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. Alerted in advance, we had ample time to prepare emergency supplies including the purchase of our very first portable generator. Which, after losing power during last year’s Hurricane Irene just weeks after moving from California to Pennsylvania, we knew would save our perishables as well as our sanity. Our oldest child, Ben, has a high-functioning form of autism. Life without electricity is particularly difficult on him. And when life is difficult for him…
Monday night was frightening. Not worrisome. Not anxiety-producing. But the terrifying-kind of frightening. The kind when you just don’t know how things are going to end. The howling winds, which clocked in at 81 mph, were powerful enough to tear trees from their roots, rip roofs off of buildings, and hurls objects about as though they were rag dolls. Sitting in the dark, with children too scared to sleep, I prayed.
Waking on Tuesday, we learned that we had been spared the damage that the storm left in its wake. Sure, the lack of electricity meant no heat, no hot water, and no school for the kids. But not one of us was hurt. Nor our house. Our cars. Or our property. Though the automated voice message from our electricity company promised full restoration by Sunday night, they managed to get us back on the grid after only two days.
With so much for which to be grateful, then, why do I feel so guilty?
Jewish guilt has long been the subject of jokes. But what I am experiencing is no joke. It is, I suspect, a type of survivor-guilt. One that leads to questions such as, “Why was my house spared when our neighbor’s house wasn’t?” and, “How can I proclaim the joy of a hot shower when so many friends and colleagues have been evacuated from homes ravaged by nature’s elements?” Reading the continued struggles faced by thousands along the Eastern seaboard and seeing pictures of such abject devastation makes our few days seem a mere inconvenience. By what right did I complain when so many are sleeping in unheated homes or have been evacuated from them?
We are taught to love our neighbors as ourselves. To care for the stranger and the vulnerable in our midst. And to take action rather than stand idle as others bleed. It is this sense of compassion and obligation to human life that dampens my own joy. And yet, Jewish tradition teaches us to be thankful when good things happen and allows us to empathize with others’ misfortunes without diminishing our own relief, as well as provide us with language of thanksgiving to acknowledge these emotions.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying that hot shower or being elated when the electricity returned. To deny that is to invalidate my experience and rob me of moments of true gratitude for the many blessings. While a healthy amount of guilt can temper boastful urges, it ought not prevent us from showing appreciation. So too I pray that this (thankfully) brief experience will enable me to better understand the pain of others and provide assistance to those whose nightmare has not yet ended.
For more perspective on the storm, check out these lessons to teach your kids about natural disasters and what went down at the NYU hospital NICU.