A well-being more than materially dependent

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 14, 2005

I received many well-considered responses to last week's column on Katrina's call for authentic leadership – a column that affirmed our individual capacities to bring love, peace and hope into times of natural disaster. One response in particular, from Edmonton, stimulated some very thoughtful discussion in a Cochrane cafˇ over the weekend.

Coffee companion Yovella Mizrahii wrote: "Situations like Hurricane Katrina bring out the 'real you' – not the best or worst of you, but the 'real you.'"

Over coffee at Java Jamboree I shared Yovella's comment with Cochrane resident Zabi Behin and his daughter Taban, treasured mentors to me in practical spirituality, and their house guest, Michael Leggett, a graduate student in development studies at the University of Guelph.

As a child Taban, a 1998 Cochrane High graduate, lived with her parents in Fiji, a South Pacific archipelago that is no stranger to tropical storms. The torrential downpours and devastating winds of cyclones wreak havoc there, leveling homes and crops, disrupting power and communications, and wiping out livelihoods – not unlike hurricanes in the U.S. Gulf States.

I asked Zabi and Taban how Fijians react to such environmental disasters compared to our typical reactions on this side of the Pacific.

Their replies can be summarized in two words: "detachment" and "community." In Canada and the U.S. so much of our identity is tied to material possessions and individualism, they said, but in their experience of Fiji, personal identity is tied much more to community.

In the aftermath of such storms, Fijians "would display only a peaceful acquiescence and a quiet determination to rebuild what was broken, all the while being detached from what couldn't be replaced," Taban said.

The topic must have followed them home, because in an email to me that evening Taban expanded on their responses:

"I thought an important difference may lie in the level of attachment many like myself have to material goods, the technologies and comforts that have taken precedence over a sense of community," she wrote. "Indeed, because community is a wealth that is not measured by monetary means, I fear I somehow forget to value it.

"Michael thought one difference may lie in how our brothers and sisters in the South Pacific accept suffering as a natural means of renewal and growth, whereas we see suffering as something to avoid at all costs.

"My father felt another difference was that, in the West, we have assigned the job of serving others in need to very specific sectors of society, and this has essentially absolved the rest of us from taking responsibility for assisting others. We have become passive, if not judgmental, sideliners in the service to our fellow human beings, whereas in the South Pacific, necessity dictates that everyone in a community participate in the act of serving one another in order to ensure the happiness and well-being of all."

Then, returning to Yovella's comment about the "real you," Taban added:

"I shudder to think there might already have been a sense of chaos existing in the lives of those who went through the hurricane and floods in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi, a chaos that was only made apparent through literal storms.

"Indeed, I think that all around us there are communities in such disarray and disunity that even the slightest turbulence could wreak havoc, whereas in my childhood, I recall feeling that nothing could ever sway even the simplest village communities in Fiji, since they were so unified and focused on the well-being of the collective, a well-being that was more than materially dependent."

Thank you, coffee companions.

On a related note, Robert Moog, musical inventor of the Synthesizer, died Aug. 21 at the age of 71. While writing this column I was listening to an old LP of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" performed on the Moog Synthesizer. As a tribute to those longing for community in Katrina's aftermath, these words:

When you're weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all
I'm on your side, oh, when times get rough . . .
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

© 2005 Warren Harbeck

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