Dissonance Not to Be Wasted

The day I landed, the earthquake hit. The island is only ninety miles from Haiti and we felt the tremor.

I wasn’t in the Caribbean for a vacation. A Latin American client was looking for a place to hold an executive offsite, so I suggested the island I had lived on for four years. With tourism down, both travel and rooms were inexpensive, and the location of the island relative to the company’s offices made it very cost effective to hold our meeting there.

I had put together a very aggressive agenda for this meeting and we found ourselves working 12 to 14 hours a day. When I’m facilitating, I am totally immersed in my work and can barely even find time to respond to emails. let alone surf the news websites. So to be frank, I didn’t even realize the magnitude of what was going on in Haiti.

This island has a large Haitian population, so little by little the news leaked into our meeting room. It wasn’t cleaned our second day because the housekeepers were Haitian and too consumed with worry about their friends and family to show up for work. The third day a relief benefit was held in the building next to ours. By the fourth day, we had all had a minute or two to read about the catastrophe and were quickly becoming aware of the scope of the disaster.

I have many friends on the island from Haiti and had long heard the tales of the horrendous conditions in the country. Several month ago, I wrote a post about Charles, who had survived a harrowing boat trip as a teenager to escape the poverty. One morning two years ago, I had woken up and looked out my window, only to see the coast guard fishing a body out of the ocean. A sloop from Haiti full of people looking for a better life had capsized just a few hundred yards from shore. An estimated eighty bodies were never even found.

With our meeting over and an acknowledged success, I flew back to the U.S. Finally, I had a chance to catch up on the news I had missed. It was even far worse than I could have imagined. The numbers of the dead and displaced were incomprehensible. Gut-wrenching pictures of injured children were all over the major internet news sites. The day I returned, a 6.1 aftershock hit the island. There was not much additional physical damage, journalists reported, but the psychic trauma to an already shaken people was huge.

Such calamities stop us in our tracks. They halt the automatic processing of our brains and activate the areas responsible for seeing the whole. We’re pulled back to a vantage point that changes our perspective on everything. The dissonance primes us for a change in what we value and how we behave.

I have felt numb since my return and nothing seems quite the same. I look around my house and wonder why I ever thought I needed all of the stuff I’ve accumulated. I listen to my daughters bicker as close sibling will do, and question how I ever could’ve been irritated by it. I reflect on the worries that used to seem so all consuming and feel ashamed.

This morning I read about the debate over whether we should send more financial aid to Haiti–we currently give about 97 cents per American. Many feel the country is so far gone that it’s just a waste of money. Others write that such handouts diminish the spirit of industry needed to turn the country around.

I also read about Goldman Sachs’ near record profit, just a small fraction of which, if invested in Haiti, could transform the lives of its people.  I then thought about Lloyd Blankfein’s comment that the firm was doing God’s work.

Later when I was driving my daughters to school, I must have committed some heinous traffic sin, for another motorists made an obscene gesture. When I then pulled up at a light next to him, he refused to look in my direction. When eye contact is made, it’s hard not to empathize and see the other person as a human being like yourself.

Haiti’s earthquake is one of Obama’s “teachable moments.” It should change everything, from the tone of our political debate over issues like healthcare to the unproductive squabbling in our business organizations. We need to focus on what’s fundamentally important to us as human beings.

First, though,we need to stop and look each other in the eye.