Friday, January 15, 2010

Is It Better to Make This Earthquake Personal?

Almost as soon as the earthquake struck Haiti this week, stories started appearing about various well known people who were in Haiti or had family in Haiti.  There were multiple stories about Jimmy Jean-Louis, "The Haitian" on the television show "Heroes," and his search for his family in Haiti.  They have been found and are safe.  Today, word came that Haitian Rapper Jimmy O died in the earthquake.  On a smaller scale, I have received information about various missionary groups and the like and their fate, and friends have voiced their fears for friends in Haiti.

All of this is very understandable.  When something big happens, we naturally want to hook it into something we understand.  Thousands of people dying is too big to really wrap our minds around.  Jean-Louis looking for his parents puts a face on the situation and helps us connect.  For those with friends and relatives in Haiti, it is natural to be concerned for the people you know and love.

At the same time, there are dangers to putting that personal face on this tragedy.  On the one hand, if the particular person you have been following is, indeed, dead, you set yourself off for a much bigger psychological reaction than if you had not tied your understanding to a particular individual.  On the other hand, if they are found safe you risk minimizing the sheer number of people who have died.  We hope that those we care about are safe, but we can't forget that so many are not.

All of this is just another indication of how hard it is to wrap your mind around a disaster of this magnitude.  We are scrambling to figure out what the numbers mean, what the devastation means, and how we can be useful when we're feeling so helpless.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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