Last night my heart was devastated as my 5-year old and I prayed for the school children and countless others killed by Oklahoma's most recent monster tornado. I imagined the terror, the grief of those hovered under tables and those who would wake up still looking for their loved ones. After 9/11, like much of the nation, I experienced - for the first time in my life, survivor's guilt, surrounding an event that really didn't personally impact me in any way. Last night these thoughts paralyzed my sleep. How many of those parents dropped their kids off at school just like I did in the morning, looking forward to Monday night dinner with them? How cruel and unfair was it for me to be going about my daily life hundreds of miles away with my healthy little boy? Who am I to be able to just turn off the TV or change the channel when the devastation becomes too unbearable for me to face? Those parents certainly don't have that choice.
In the past, these thoughts would make me scour every detail of headlines like these: Frantic Oklahoma Parents Seek Kids. 20 Children Among at Least 51 Dead. Tornadoes Deadly Path of Destruction. I felt like I had to read every graphic detail, know the names and faces of everyone impacted, get a visual survey of the physical destruction, and personally witness every body pulled from the rubble, in order to honor their pain. I felt that the only way to demonstrate compassion towards these strangers was to become one with them, to physically try to put myself in their shoes and to feel their pain. If you are anything like me, I have news for you. You will never feel the same exact pain that the Oklahoma survivors are feeling right this moment, no matter what you do. You are not honoring anyone by staying glued to your television set or by reading every painful detail of the horrors, over and over again, every half hour on the Internet. What you are doing however, is weighing your spirit down with traumatic, unnecessary, and often times, painfully private details of victims and survivors - dramatized, intended to keep your attention...and to keep you coming back for more. In my field of work, we call this secondary trauma - the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person. Symptoms of secondary trauma may include intrusive thoughts, chronic fatigue, sadness, emotional exhaustion, fearfulness, and even physical illness.
So ask yourself, at times of great sadness and devastation like these, what do communities need? An entire nation of self-traumatized individuals paralyzed with grief and guilt, glued to their television sets? Or is our time better spent turning away from CNN.com and turning off MSNBC, sparing ourselves from gory details that satisfy no one but ourselves, and coming together to offer real support to the victims and survivors? I heard the Dalai Lama speak earlier this week and one of his most profound messages was that he, one of the most holy and prayerful individuals in the world, accepted the limitations of prayer. True compassion requires action. I for one will honor the victims and survivors by not obsessing over every single detail of their private grief and horror. If you'd like to join me, here's how we can really help: http://news.ca.msn.com/top-stories/how-to-help-oklahoma-tornado-victims.