Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Had it not been for my restless mind, this would have been an uneventful day for me. I spent the day at the distribution center, pretty much doing what I had done the previous afternoon.
Except that, around 2 PM, things caught up with me, and I had to run outside for a while because I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.
What had smacked me down was not so much the enormity of the disaster but the enormity of the response. Within two weeks, Operation Blessing had deployed over 4,000 volunteer responders from all corners of the country and all walks of life. (And there were other organizations working there as well.) Relief supplies flowed in from everywhere, by the truckload. Semi-trailers full of food, water and other supplies came in from business companies and other organizations. But the most stunning thing was that ordinary people hundreds of miles away would collect what they could locally, load it up in their pickups and trailers, perhaps take the time to stencil “Harrisburg Relief” on the side of the trailers and then simply hit the road.
No one had to tell anyone what was the right thing to do. People simply did it, not seeking glory, recognition, pats on the back. Ordinary people saw their fellows in distress and understood spontaneously that the right thing to do was to pitch in however they could. “Evolved” people would surely sniff at this, but if anyone cited any motivation at all (and not many did), it was Christian charity. The oft-dismissed and lampooned “simple” people of the Midwest, proverbially clinging to their religion and their guns, spontaneously knew what had to be done. In their response, they put the lie to the oft-cited malicious stereotype that Americans have always only looked out for Number One without caring what happens to others. The fools who claim this have no clue about the real America, the nation of truly rugged individualists who are nevertheless thoroughly devoted to community, and for whom looking out for one another is as natural as breathing. The two notions are never mutually exclusive, unless you seek a strawman argument for something as useless as a medieval disputation.
As a (legal) immigrant, I have had the opportunity to experience the natural generosity and helpfulness of the American people; but on this scale and with this degree of spontaneity, I found it to be a profoundly moving and humbling experience. It was, I thought, the very essence of America: masses of people acting spontaneously and purposefully to achieve a common good, not asking permission, doing what they knew was the right thing to do for their fellow man, doing it right and doing it long before any official bureaucracy could motivate itself to study the situation, never mind to respond.
I cannot think of any other nation where such tremendous response to human distress would have occurred so spontaneously. I cannot think of any other nation where such strength of community exists among such implacably individualistic people.
I spent the rest of the day with my head in a fog, mulling over these notions, talking to other volunteers about it. Many of them were surprised at my surprise: what? why would anyone need to ask what was the right thing to do, or hesitate to do it?
And then, late in the evening, came yet another disturbing thought: why was I the only Jew here? What is, these days. the real notion of “my people?” Jews, or all Americans? Have American Jews really forgotten the true meaning of die goldene Medina that encompasses more than just Jews?
And I felt shame.
Needless to say, sleep came late that night.