Sunday, June 12, 2011

There's Your Trouble (A Newspaper Coumn)

Another column of mine published by The Fayetteville Observer.

Community Advisory Board: There's Your Trouble

Published: 12:00 AM, Fri Jun 10, 2011
By Skye Dent

Recently, I was among community-minded intelligent colleagues discussing the wave of terrorist-like tornadoes when a haunting subject arose. The group expressed surprise that so many strangers offered help during the tornadoes' aftermath.
They repeated quotes from others who were - surprised. The unknown off-duty military folks who pitched in without waiting to exhale. The stranger who did this. The no-name woman who did that. Their departing shadows reminded one of Clint Eastwood after he cleaned up the badlands and rode into the sunset with a nod, a squint and a toothpick between his teeth.

Weeks later, visiting Missouri's Joplin where many lives were swept up and crushed, Barack Obama applauded similar "countless acts of courage."

I had lived a bit of it in other places. Fires consuming acres, homes and wildlife. Floods. Earthquakes. My most vivid memories of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake were both aching and amusing. To avoid closed off streets, I biked 10 miles to my office at Warner Interactive. The guard wouldn't let me in. Even after scanning my work I.D., he said I might be there to loot.

So, I called my regular disaster volunteer organization. L.A. Works sent me to a retirement home to pick up fallen items for evacuating seniors. I spent hours packing hundreds of porn videos, pretending for a tenant's benefit that I didn't know what they were.

There were thanks. Gratitude. But no surprise.

What does surprise me now, 10-plus years later, is why so many people here and in other parts of the country seemed surprised that strangers would put their lives on hold to help. So maybe that is what we should be asking. Why is it that people devastated, left helpless by tornadoes, did not expect strangers to help? What is it about our psyche these days that we feel others won't respond in times of need and distress?


According to S.L.A. Marshall, a World War I Army historian, when troops could not see each other, they felt more alone. Forced out of one's home and unable to contact friends and family, perhaps the tornado-stricken felt so alone that their normal expectations were put on hold.

Taylor Clark, author of "Nerve: Poise Under Pressure," says that "under life-threatening stress, complex brain processing plummets and the neural mainstream often maxes out." I think he means that it's normal for our caveman instincts, "Lord of the Flies" expectations to take over.

"Surviving under fire is about formatting your brain to take the right action reflexively," explains Clark. Did those who helped without question have their minds formatted from a previous catastrophic situation? Of course, that's part of the theory behind the CERT (Community Emergency Response Training) I took two years ago. Train regularly and the doing is automatic, we were told.

That would explain the take-charge actions of many off-duty soldiers. What author Sally Le Boeuf calls "The Warrior's Edge." People from the military who, at one point or another, have lived at a level of performance at which physical skills are precisely executed with little effort. Snap, the cognitive process kicks in.

Even in guys who fought as far back as Vietnam, I've seen that reaction. It's one reason I gave a few of them my "dig here" packet of driving routes and copies of I.D. before long drives. If I didn't arrive, their warrior's edge would kick in and the hunt would be on before you could say "criminal minds."

Of course, we could blame news organizations for low expectations of charity. Newspapers and TV news get blamed for so much else. Think about it. The media highlight Good Samaritans as if they're endangered species. But that theory would assume that we readers and viewers are not media literate and cannot think for ourselves.

Still, even on an international level, we're reminded that our country doesn't do good deeds just for virtue's sake. How many times have we been told in the last two weeks that America gives aid to Pakistan in exchange for strategic interests?

Even on a new board that I'm a part of, some board members want to benefit financially from the organization's activities. We're talking about a nonprofit.


So is generosity a zero sum game? If you do something for me, do I incur a psychological debt that has to be made up? I took care of you when the tornado struck your house. Now you owe me. Better to be suspicious than to incur debt, goes the theory.

Perhaps the answer isn't so deep. What if, even though compassion has not totally been kicked to the curb, it's simply no longer a fundamental character trait that counts? Hmmm. Well then, how long before we reach the stage where compassion is seen as a negative?

To quote a popular country-western song, "there's your trouble."

Skye Dent iis a member of the Observer's Community Advisory Board, which meets regularly with the editorial board to discuss local issues and contributes op-ed columns. She is a screenwriter as well as a professor within the University of North Carolina system.