Disasters have a way of showing us the tensions that lie just under the surface of our pretenses. In the U.S., that shows up as an espoused belief in community and communal ideals even as we celebrate rugged individualism and bootstrapping, rags-to-riches successes.
We are especially conflicted about volunteering because it holds an inherent cognitive and value dissonance. We want everyone to be self-sufficient individuals, but we like how it makes us feels to volunteer when self-sufficiency doesn’t work out. We like to think of ourselves as living in community, but our circle of community is pretty small and often contains assumptions about who deserves to be included and excluded.
When we peel back the layers on our beliefs, we discover roles for each of us: those who have and those who need, those who give help and those who receive help.
It’s partly why we can come together in times of natural disaster and now COVID-19: the lines get blurred. Those who typically give help can temporarily suspend judgment and boundaries about those needing help because almost everyone needs help or feels helpless in the face of widespread disaster and need. These givers will accept help from a receiver for a change because their usual solutions do not work.
In disaster, even those who typically receive can give help; small gestures feel significant. We celebrate caregivers with lights and noisemaking, sew masks, smile at a stranger, shop for a neighbor, create chalk art on sidewalks, teach family members to use virtual spaces.
Disasters suspend the rules of how and with whom we usually interact. It illuminates our shared humanity and the innate connections between us.
These connections exist all the time, of course, but we who tend to be givers develop cataracts that blur our ability to see them outside of disasters. What if we practiced a collective mindset beyond the disaster?
What if we examined our labels and roles? Who is allowed to be a giver? When are givers allowed to receive? When are receivers allowed to give? What circumstances dictate our roles?
My version of these questions reflects my nonprofit experience…when are beneficiaries allowed to design programs? When are clients allowed to be the experts? When are students allowed to teach? When are funding parameters determined by the grantee? When are volunteers allowed to name a community need or craft their work?
If we are part of a community and a web of reciprocity, we all have something to give and receive. Yet, it isn’t often that we acknowledge that givers are needy. It is rare that we acknowledge the inherent ability and power of receivers.
Disasters can help make our invisible dividers more visible. Crisis reveals inequities and power dynamics. Emergencies give us experience trying on radically different roles.
They also might leave us asking new questions. What are the implications of acting on these lessons beyond the immediate devastation: on the communities we serve, the volunteers we engage, the clients we support? What healing beckons when we link arms in realization of all we have to give and all we need to receive? How do we make room for this to occur?