The response to disaster -- why caring matters

Another fire -- the Sheep Fire -- is burning on the outskirts of Los Angeles. This will bring another outpouring of emotion from people in our city.

This explosion of caring is not an accident, and it's not something to be shrugged off or taken for granted.

It's something I've been observing for thirty-eight years in disaster relief. To not act is more damaging to an individual confronted with a crisis than to act. When you see something that disturbs you, the adrenaline is a physiological reminder to pay attention, to respond, not to shut down. Adrenaline at first serves as a wake-up call, and then as an energy source to power our response, but if that energy goes undeployed, then it becomes emotionally corrosive, like an acid.

As a human being, you are invited, entitled, perhaps required to respond to a crisis. Our biology demands it. We have no physical organ of emotion except the metaphor of the heart, but there is a broadband of human attunement, in the sense that we all respond to blood, pain, and suffering. Our individual natures vary, but when something hits this frequency, it creates a quickening, and that is converted to adrenaline, which is our body's way of saying: Wake up! Pay attention! Take action! 

And speaking of waking up, paying attention, and taking action, I was hugely gratified to come across the book Born to be Good, by a scientist named Dacher Keltner, in which he presents abundant evidence that the basic operating principle of our species is not "survival of the fittest" but "survival of the kindest." Keltner shows that in our species those who become leaders turn out usually to be not the brawniest, most intimidating, or cruelest, but those best able to serve the survival of the group by helping others.

He writes:

Compassion is a biologically based emotion rooted deep in the mammalian brain, and shaped by perhaps the most potent of selection pressures humans evolved to adapt to -- the need to care for the vulnerable.

Helping people and healing the planet is not being saintly. It's not even being selfless. It's a biological imperative. When we see damage and suffering -- to our people and to the environment, our life support system -- we're compelled to respond for our own good. In that moment,  as we vicariously experience pain and suffering, it's damaging to us not to respond, not to serve, not to help.

I believe that we've clouded and obstructed this fact with a mythology. We say: "I'm not my brother's keeper." Or: "I'm no saint." Or we deny the response, labeling it simply "fight or flight," as if our compassion were irrelevant. We utter these folk sayings to justify not helping. Yet the survival of the world is completely dependent upon us participating and helping, as is our own individual emotional, mental and physical health and well-being.

Saying you want to help is one thing; taking action is another. At TreePeople we've spent nearly four decades honing the art of supporting volunteer engagement. If you are inspired to help, check out the Volunteer search section of TreePeople's website for the many ways you can get involved.