Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

September 9, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 14

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"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. A member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, she is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

When there's no more to say, it's time to feel

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

"This world is a comedy to those who think," Horace Walpole wrote, "a tragedy to those who feel." He wasn't talking about the situation in New Orleans -- but he could have been.

What more can possibly be written about the hurricane in New Orleans that has not already been printed. But how can a human, human being write or think about much of anything else right now. There is something about the situation that simply dominates the soul -- as well it should, as well it is.

We know the information: a hurricane came, levees broke, 80 percent of the city was inundated by flood waters anywhere from 4 feet to 20 feet deep, and hardest hit was the Ninth Ward, a low income area of African-Americans who did not have access to the transportation they needed to flee the city.

We know, too, that New Orleans begged for help from the National Guard. CNN got there, ABCNews got there, MSNBC got there -- all of them within hours of the storm -- but it took the National Guard five days to arrive, long after the available food and water had run out, long after the corpses and feces and chemicals and oil had turned the city into a toxic swamp.

Finally, we know that the city is now closed down, become a ghost town, turned into a gaping wound on the U.S. psyche.

And, oh yes, we also know that in addition to the dead yet to be counted, there are now 485,000 refugees out there, being shunted from place to place, looking for housing, food, jobs, and families.

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And that's where the thinking stops. At 485,000 refugees.

That's where the feelings -- that other kind of thinking -- the tragedy, takes over.

The thinkers say that the city will be dried out in so many days. The Superdome will be torn down -- in so many days. An inquiry will be conducted -- in so many days. Money will be given to relief agencies for the support of the homeless -- in so many days. And all of that, if even any appreciable part of it is true, is fine. But that's where the comedy -- the story with a happy ending -- ends.

The calendar of recovery does not mention the tragedy of what can never be recovered: the old culture, the old city, the old haunts, the old living places, the old music, the old certainties, the old security for any of us.

Little by little, the feelings begin to seep out like water in a leechbed from one end of the country to the other. Feelings -- theirs and ours -- begin to bubble up and spill over and inundate an entire nation of people once invulnerable, once invincible, once sure that we were just a little lower than the gods, now become rudely aware that we are earthlings of the earthiest order.

Then feelings -- that other kind of thinking -- just won't go away. First one, then another, struggles to the surface and threatens to overwhelm us again:

Confusion: How is that a country that is one flight away from Mars couldn't get troops into the city to keep order, couldn't send 100 policemen with bullhorns into the Superdome to give some semblance of organization and dignity to people who had swum for their lives to get there, couldn't drive a fleet of buses to a staging area to pick up the old men, the sick women, the little children from the 50,000 households in New Orleans that do not own a car?

Have we come to the point where people count less in this country than inflating our international ego with space travel that eats up money and brings back rocks?

Anger: Failing to find 19 lonely, obsessed, fanatics out of a haystack of 6 billion people before they have a chance to use our own commercial airliners to blow up the World Trade Center is one thing. But failing to have 25,000 rubber boats available to evacuate people from a Category 4-5 hurricane that you can see coming straight at you for four full days before it hits is entirely another. For years New Orleans has feared "the big one," expected the big one, understood the implications of being hit by the big one. But we weren't ready? Why not!

We're told that we're doing everything "right" in Iraq? After 2,000 U.S. dead and 14,000 wounded, a country teetering on the brink of civil war and the creation of a nest of terrorists, we say we've made no mistakes, we have no regrets. If this is a demonstration of how "right" we do things now, how can we possibly justify what we have done to people there?

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Frustration: How can we sit quietly in front of televisions sets in our comfortable, dry, air conditioned living rooms and watch other Americans float by amid debris, see corpses hanging over garbage bags, gasp while old people are hoisted into helicopters like bags of rice in a barn? How do we help? Where do we go to help? How can anyone help this!

On our computers we get the message: "The Los Angeles Services Homeless Authority is expecting approximately 20,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina to come to Los Angeles....There are currently 90,000 homeless people living in Los Angeles.... Our resources will be stretched thin. Please donate water, food, toilet paper, storage bins, toothpaste, large suitcases." In the United States of Affluence?

We're told one day that Congress has appropriated $10 billion in aid. The next day we're told we need to find another $50 billion to even scratch the surface of the amount of help needed.

Last year the U.S. domestic services budget was cut so taxes for the wealthy could be cut even more and the war in Iraq could go on. What public services and infrastructures and social programs will pay for these things now. Where will we get the money we say we don't have? And where will we put it? Into bombs or into biscuits for babies?

While we are trying to clean up rubble in our own country and calling it tragic, we are creating it in another and calling it noble. "U.S. Red Cross tracks 94,000 Katrina Evacuees," the first headline says; "Marine Jets Bomb Two Iraqi Bridges," the second headline says to remind us that while our own refugees are being forced from their homes, the people we are making refugees elsewhere are streaming out of cities not our own.

"This is no time to point fingers," the administration says. True. But the time is coming.

From where I stand in a country that refuses to sign global warming treaties, that routinely dismisses ecological data as unimportant, that refuses to admit the scope of the disaster we ourselves have launched elsewhere, it is time to wake up. It is time to conduct our future elections on a comparative study of issues and plans and projects that will make these tragic situations impossible rather than on Madison Avenue images and "good 'ol boy" politics.

If we don't wake up soon, the real tragedy is yet to come and then it will be too late for any of us to either think or feel.

Editor's Notes:

  • Readers of this column may be interested in reading what Bishop Thomas Gumbleton said about Hurricane Katrina in his Sept. 4 homily.
  • There will be no From Where I Stand column next week. The next column will be posted September 22.)

  • Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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