Like a lot of people, when I see the images of destruction in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that hit the coastal communities of New York and New Jersey and hear the cries from people who have lost everything, absolutely everything, I still can’t believe it.
As a child, my family lived in an apartment that faced the Hudson River separating Manhattan from New Jersey. In the 60s and 70s we went through two blackouts and at least three blizzards but this storm was altogether something different.
Yet what strikes me most is the gratitude people express for just having survived, for having their loved ones near by, for having the fortitude to know they will start over.
As an organizing professional I am deeply aware of the nature of people’s attachments to their possessions. I see almost daily how people instill their possessions with meaning. Yet when they no longer possess it or they leave it behind either by choice or by circumstance, I am always struck by the notion that those things, in and of themselves, have no meaning. They become merely objects that in most cases, have no value other than what they can fetch on an open market. Their meaning along with the memories they evoke are tied to the people who possessed them.
The other day I was emptying a storage closet that belonged to someone I never knew and who had long since abandoned it. It seemed strange and sad that no one had taken responsibility for the items I found: photographs of family events and babies long since grown; awards and commemorative plaques honoring the life and work of this person; books and files and several religious figurines.
I took most of the items to Goodwill. What couldn’t be donated was recycled. Doing so made me think of the thousands upon thousands of items that end up unclaimed every year in rented storage spaces, abandoned homes, even people’s current homes and forgotten storage areas. They become the remnants of their lives. Items that meant so much one day, and nothing the next.
If tragedy teaches us anything, it teaches us who we really are. When I organize someone’s home or office or help them get organized to move, I often stress that in the scheme of things they come first, not their stuff. I am not saying this to judge them or to minimize the value they place in their possessions, rather, I am encouraging them to be as conscious and thoughtful as possible about what they own.
Not everything has to have “meaning” but ideally if it takes up space it should have usefulness or add value to our lives in some way. It should give us joy or be pleasing or practical or purposeful. Just like our homes, that offer us a place of refuge or peace, the items we surround ourselves with offer us something real and tangible. At the very least they should be a positive reflection of ourselves and something familiar to come home to.
To me that is the true lesson of Hurricane Sandy. That, in a matter of hours, all that was familiar to so many was lost. They didn’t expect it. They couldn’t plan for it and yet they remain hopeful that their lives as they once knew them to be will one day return. The rain and the winds and the water may have washed away their homes but it didn’t wash away their spirit.
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