Time to acknowledge our comfort, and call on our empathy

Like my cat Willy, who winks with satisfaction when I bring up the morning tray of coffee into our bedroom, as he has come to believe I should do, I thrive on the daily rituals I’ve developed in my home. The regularity of life within my beloved four walls gives me a foundation of peace and security from which I can take on the challenges and enjoy the pleasures of my days.

As the siege of natural disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, Mexico City and California have left people without their homes and possessions, I’ve been reminded of how my domestic routines form the core of my well-being. 

I empathize with those who ignored mandatory evacuation orders, preferring to hunker down in the familiarity of their own homes, come what may. I’ve tried to imagine spending days in a shelter, amidst the noise of hundreds of upset families, with only a single bag of precious items grabbed at the last moment stored under my cot. 

As for those whose houses or apartments have become rubble or indistinguishable ash, and whose routine now comprises a search for food and water and a place to rest, I can guess at the anguish behind their brave words, “At least our family is safe. We have each other.” And of course there are families where even loved ones are lost.

My friend Lynnette Najimy, who had recently moved with her dog to Florida, locked the door to her new rental in the middle of the night to join her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild on a long drive north to Tennessee, where they spent the next week out of the range of the storm. Although Lynnette had traveled the world over and had lived abroad for months at a time, she had never worried about what she would return to. Yet this time, during the long week away from home, she had to work to avoid all thoughts of what she and her family would be coming back to. 

Since other families with dogs had also discovered the modest Tennessee motel where they stayed, the families worked hard to manage themselves and their dogs, who were as unsettled as their owners by the congestion of strangers in an unfamiliar space.

“We tried to call it an adventure,” Lynnette told me, remembering how grateful she was that she loved her family and that they were getting along so well in their cramped quarters amidst such stress. She felt she was being tested in “what really matters,” and realized how few things beyond her family really did matter to her. Indeed, it was only after she was safely home again that she let herself sink with gratitude into the comfort and security of her house and the familiarity of her things.

The unprecedented natural disasters of this season have turned millions homeless. Yet no friend of mine has spent time in a shelter, returned to a home covered by mud and mildew, picked through rubble to find household items that might be salvageable, or struggled to continue life without electricity or water, as many in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands continue to do. Secure in my cozy home, I rely on television images to imagine the heartbreak beneath the grim determination victims express to do whatever is necessary for survival day after day.

Though we all share one tumultuous planet, even among Americans our lives can seem distant and unreal to each other. For those of us whose homes rest on dry and stable land, it is tempting to go about our routines as if nothing has gone wrong. Yet empathy for the tragedies that others are suffering is what makes us human — and the generosity prompted by this empathy is certainly needed by those who will remain in peril for quite some time. 


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, Conn., has published six books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. What interests her these days are the complications of civil society in America.