HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated January 16, 2011 12:00 AM
SYDNEY, Australia — It is a strange feeling watching the non-stop television coverage of the massive floods in Queensland. It is not because I am not a news junkie, or I am not turned off by tragedy. I am both. I feel strange because I have never seen such images of suffering brought about by natural disasters here in Australia, like those I have seen back home in the Philippines.
It is not that I think natural and man-made calamities do not or cannot happen in Australia. I know they do. But my knowledge of them has, until now, been on an intellectual level since I am a relative newcomer here. The worst experience I have had that comes anywhere close to a tragedy is nowhere near what I am seeing on TV right now. Two years after we moved in, my family and our little home here in Blacktown were subjected to a severe hail storm where ice pieces as large or larger than baseballs rained on our house and a relatively new car, leaving no less than 67 bumps on its body.
But that was nothing compared to what I am watching on TV today — bombarded with graphic images of people losing lives and property, going through physical and emotional suffering, and the heartbreak that accompanies a tragedy of the magnitude of what is going on in Queensland.
The size of the disaster area boggles the mind. The flooded area is larger than Germany and France put together.
Having spent most of my life in a poverty-stricken country like the Philippines, suffering is not new to me. I have experienced it firsthand and I have watched it on TV. In many ways, I am inured to images of hardship and have a high tolerance for it.
What makes this Queensland calamity very shocking is because of several factors. One, Australia is a well-planned country and one would expect that something like flooding has been factored into the design of its cities.
Two, Australia is a rich country and, in my simplistic mind, I have allowed myself to believe that rich people do not suffer as much as the poor. After all, they have a system that works for them. They have provisions, escape hatches, smart solutions for something like this.
Three, the magnitude of the disaster is beyond comprehension, leading me to believe that what people in Australia and in many parts of the world are dealing with is Mother Nature gone berserk. She is venting her ire on us for causing Global Warming, as she experiences hot flushes.
I would be dishonest if I don’t confess that I am not used to seeing white people crowding in relief centers, eating communally-cooked food prepared by disaster aides. I have scoffed at what I have imagined is the rich countries’ concept of suffering. But the sight of Australians fighting for their lives crossing raging waters, or waiting for rescue stranded on their roofs hoping for deliverance, has changed all that.
Images of cars floating on water and piling on top of each other shocked me when I first saw a lot of it during Ondoy. But somehow, such images seem much more magnified here where there are many more cars, trucks, boats, yachts, furniture, even shipping containers crashing into one another and onto lamp posts, houses, trees, buildings and bridges in the raging waters. Throw in horses, cows trying to tread water and finding a place to rest their heads on low rooftops. The scene is mayhem.
The number of causalities is quite big by Aussie standards (around 12 dead, 43 missing as of Wednesday afternoon) since the country has only a small population of a little over 20 million. (The relatively small population density all over the country actually helps keep the casualty number low.)
Another factor is Australia has a much higher level of disaster preparedness than we have in the Philippines. They have more resources for rescue, and keeping people safe. But Queenslanders were still caught flat-footed as the waters rose quickly overnight. The deadly “inland tsunami” that hit was totally unexpected.
A few minutes ago, I received an e-mail from a friend here asking for donations of canned goods, dry clothing, money — anything we can spare which will go specifically to the 3,000 Philos (Filipinos in Aussie speak) living in Queensland. When I read it, the whole impact of the tragedy sank deeper, completing the picture puzzle, mentally and emotionally.
Suffering is a universal experience. And knowing that fellow Filipinos are also suffering in Queensland removed the last remaining barrier to my full understanding and appreciation of what is going on. People are the same everywhere. Whether they are white, black, brown, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever, people cry when they are in pain, when they are hungry, when they are homeless, and when they lose everything. And equally, other people take a pitiful gaze on the suffering and are moved to help those in need.
Compassion is built into us as human beings. People have a natural compassion, which balances things. Where there is injustice, we want justice. Where there is want and suffering, we try to alleviate it. Compassion in action is the practice of energy transfer. We balance things by transferring resources from one place to another. We share what we have — our material wealth, our time and our sympathy – to help those who are lacking in these. This energy transfer is like chi, or the life force that moves from sources that have an excess of it to others who have little of it and need it.
And yet, I often wonder why, if this is true, we sometimes choose not to help. I have noticed that most people, present company included, may genuinely wish others the best, and do want to help starving people everywhere. But what prevents us from sharing is the fear that we may not have enough for ourselves when the time comes that we need it.
We know from observing suffering in ourselves and others, that no race, social status or religious difference separates people when everyone is in the same place having a hard time. People in Queensland are reporting that neighbors whom they hardly knew or talked to are helping them, and vice-versa. Distinctions blur or disappear. Humanity is indeed one.
In my lucid moments, I believe that every person is an expression, an image, or a son or daughter of God. Only from this elevated view of ourselves do we become a collective, one humanity. There is no “other.” What we do for anyone, we also do for ourselves.
Today I am a Queenslander.
And Queensland is Bicol is Samar is the Sudan is Arizona. We weep with and extend compassion to all who suffer.
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