On Earthquakes and Feeling Helpless

When the earthquake happened, Paula and I were eating at a local restaurant in Pokhara, Nepal. There was some confusion, some scurrying and some laughter.

It seems as if being in an earthquake is like being tickled. A little can be fun, but too much and we begin to panic.

That’s why it seemed strange when Paula mentioned that several of our friends had been writing messages to us on Facebook asking if we were ok. Then we realized what they were talking about. Several hundred people had died in Kathmandu? Wow, that’s bigger than we thought.

As we walked around town, it seemed as if it were just another normal day. A few more people were talking on cell phones and one group of people was crowded near a TV to watch reports of any breaking news. It was strange being so close to something and yet so far from understanding the impact.

That night after the initial shock had worn off, the relief conversation began. I started having friends ask me how they could fly in and help. I had people asking me where they could send money, and may virtual thoughts and prayers were sent out via social media. Reading it from my hotel room in Nepal, it all seemed strange.

It seemed strange because I wasn’t jumping to help. I know the feeling of wanting to help. The hero in me is very much alive and there’s nothing that I want to do more than rush in and save the day when people are in need. And yet seeing people do these gestures of “I’m going to save Nepal” filled me with a mixture of guilt, frustration and helplessness. We are a six hour car ride from the scene of the destruction and instead of rallying to help, we were checking to see if our 10am Ayurvedic massage treatment was still on (it got moved to tomorrow, in case you were wondering).

We talked with the Nepali man at our hotel about the earthquake and asked him if his friends or family had been effected. He said his family is safe but they lost their home. “What can be done to help?” we asked. He said the roads are blocked, the airport is closed and the only way to get into the city is by helicopter. He was sincere and tender, but there was no sense of heroism. He probably had a car and could drive in, but he was here in this hotel, making us coffee.

Then there was the question I couldn’t stop asking myself.

Why do I want to help?

The question has been sitting with me for the last 24 hours since we found out how serious the damage was. Do I want to help because I’m a good person? Do I want to post a picture of me carrying some pieces of concrete on Facebook? Do I have any skills that would be any more useful than the average Nepali person living in Kathmandu? I’m not a doctor and I have no special knowledge of construction or debris removal.

If I went to Kathmandu (assuming I could get in), I would use a room that could be used to house someone who was displaced by the earthquake, drink the water that was becoming scarce and not be able to speak the language.

And what about the people here in this city that was unaffected by the earthquake? Every day someone approaches me and asks for money, do I help them? Two days ago a man approached us holding his knee, saying he needed a doctor. We acknowledged him, but kept walking. Is that man any less lucky than people in Kathmandu?

Are there not enough problems close enough to home? If any of us really tried, don’t you think we could find plenty of people to help within a few minutes of our home instead of spending money on a plane ticket to the next disaster across the world? Are we all just the weekend warriors of helping people?

I’m not saying the people in Kathmandu couldn’t use some help, and in fact there are people out there doing amazing things. There is a non-profit named Team Rubicon, which is a group of ex-military and doctors who deploy to areas that have been hit by disaster to help organize the relief efforts. They found that in times of trouble, there is usually a lot of people who want to help, a lot of people in need, but no one to bridge the gap. That’s what they do. To me that seems like a useful mission, and I’m sure they’ll be on the first plane to Nepal.

So here I sit, doing the thing I do best. Writing and reflecting. When I talk to locals I ask how their family is doing and show as much compassion as I can without a shared language.

When I talk to friends online who are raising money, sending prayers and even trying to get on the next flight to Nepal, all I can do is convey what’s it’s like for me here, and even though a few hours ago I was quickly evacuated from a restaurant, hurrying down two flights of stairs, it still seems more real to everyone else but me.

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