This story, It Shouldn’t Take a Disaster to Bring Americans Together [Opinion], was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.
In recent weeks, clouds of divisiveness appear to have come over our country. But there have also been countless examples of our shared humanity shining through.
Volunteers are streaming to California to assist with rescue efforts in the wake of deadly wildfires. One team of 25, working out of a food truck, served more than 20,000 meals to victims of the fires in Chico.
After the tragic shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue late last month, two Muslim organizations raised more than $200,000 in donations in a matter of days. People from all over the country, and from all walks of life, have contributed more than $1 million to the victims and their families.
Similar moments of Americans at their best surfaced in the aftermath of Hurricanes Michael and Florence, just a few weeks ago. Grill masters who typically battle on the competitive barbecue circuit teamed up under the banner of Operation BBQ Relief to deliver thousands of free meals across Florida and the Carolinas. A volunteer group from Louisiana known as the Cajun Navy rescued thousands of stranded residents in Florida and the Carolinas.
Few things unite people from different backgrounds like a catastrophe. But it shouldn’t take a disaster to activate our innate desire to help, even love, our neighbor.
The divisions in American society seem to be on display every day in our country. Take religion. Less than half of Americans have warm feelings toward Muslims, according to a Pew poll.
Or look at race. A study published last year by psychologists at Northwestern University found that many Americans were willing to view members of other races as less than human.
The assumptions we make about others exist in part because of our growing insularity. Americans are increasingly retreating into communities – both physical and virtual – that look, sound, and think like them. So we’re spending less time with people whose lives are different ‘from our own.
Storms, of course, do not discriminate. They hit people who are old and young, people with and without disabilities, and people of all races, religions, genders and sexual orientations. History has unfortunately shown the same to be true for many man-made tragedies, too.
To withstand devastation, we work together to help each other survive, despite the assumptions and biases we’ve held in the past.
Consider the flood that struck Ellicott City, Maryland, this summer. When floodwaters filled Tim Moran’s home, the 66-year-old struggled to escape. As Moran fought to survive, Connor Witt – a perfect stranger before the storm – came to his aid. The younger, stronger Witt dug footholds into a hill in Moran’s backyard so he could climb to safety. “If it weren’t for Connor, I wouldn’t be here,” Moran told his local NBC affiliate. Despite their age difference, he now describes Witt as one of his “best friends.”
Hurricane Harvey had a similar effect in Houston, where African-American, Hispanic, Indian, and Bangladeshi families all weathered the storm together. As one resident said, “Diversity helps people understand each other’s pain.”
And when Michael destroyed the garage in Lynn Haven, Florida, where a couple and their dog had sought refuge, their neighbors sprang to the rescue, freeing them from the rubble and snagging the medicine they needed before their house collapsed entirely.
Or consider the aftermath of the awful mass shooting at a concert in Las Vegas last fall – the deadliest in U.S. history – when ordinary concertgoers turned their pickup trucks into makeshift ambulances and took dozens of complete strangers to the hospital.
Catastrophic events force us to confront our common humanity – and reveal that our capacity for good can be limitless. It would be even better if we didn’t need a disaster to see that in ourselves.
Sherman is president and CEO of The Ad Council. The latest extension of its “Love Has No Labels” campaign, a dramatic short film chronicling the aftermath of a storm entitled “Rising,” premiered November 13.