Diversity 101: What Happens When the ‘Walls’ Come Down? Reflections on the Aftermath

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In October, the onlything people wanted to talk about was Hurricane Matthew. In any formal or informal social setting, someone was likely to ask you about Matthew, and the questions were always the same: Did you evacuate? Where did you go? When did you come back? Did you have any damage? What kind? These questions always led to conversations about trees, roofs, predatory cleanup crews, insurance companies, and deductibles, deductibles, deductibles. The funny thing is that most of us willingly repeated these same stories, and usually to perfect strangers

The storm stripped us of our defenses, leaving us in disbelief and feeling vulnerable, defenseless and small; baring our pain and our fear. It exposed our need for human contact and human understanding — our need for someone to listen to our stories, our need for compassion, and our shared humanity.

On a much smaller scale, it was like the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when people came together as one. After 9/11, we were united as one, standing naked in our grief; we cried for the nation and we cried for humanity. For a while, we were not separated caste-like into communities that were closed and shuttered.

After Matthew, most of us returned to homes that were relatively undamaged; our roofs, windows, and walls were intact. And yet, because of Matthew, many figurative “walls” did come down; the invisible protective “walls” that we construct to keep us at a safe distance from others.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE ‘WALLS’ COME DOWN?

On Oct. 21, a few weeks after Matthew ripped through Hilton Head Island, some of those walls came down for me.

In the morning, my home insurer blithely told me that my policy would not cover my losses — any of them. It wouldn’t cover damage to the roof, because it was not bad enough; it would not cover the costs of evacuation or food loss, and it certainly would not cover the mangled mess of trees that were strewn over my yard. Upended trees that were hundreds of years old lay dying right before my eyes, and the pain of that loss was exacerbated by the frustration of knowing that I would receive no help from my insurer to remove them. That afternoon, as I was still coming to terms with what the adjuster had told me, a very tall man strode up to my door and announced that he was leading a team of volunteers from the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and they had come to help. He said, “I have heavy equipment; show me what you need.”

We walked the property together, and he saw the problems. Each time, he said, “We can move that” or “We can cut that up;” he even noticed that a man who was clearing property across the street was actually dumping my neighbors’ debris in front of my yard, and he scolded the man and put an immediate stop to it.

I felt a weight lifting. Here was someone I had never seen before, someone who wanted no money, someone I am unlikely to ever see again. And he was there to help me. It’s difficult to find words to express how this instantly connected me to this other human being; he was both human and humane. I didn’t even know how far he’d come to do this. I later learned that his name is Kirk Dixon, a neighbor who lives here on the island. All afternoon, he and his team of three operated a heavy-duty tractor, sawed, lifted and dragged trees off my property.

During a brief respite from the work, I talked to Dixon and learned that he is not a farmer or construction worker, but a local veterinarian who decided to help his neighbors recover from the disaster left by Matthew. During our conversation, I noted how disasters bring people together in beautiful ways that remind them of their common humanity, but we also agreed that disasters can bring out the predators: those selfish people who lay in wait for an opportunity to exploit their fellow men and women to make a profit off of another’s pain. Sadly, both types coexist, and some were riding up and down my street.

Late in the day, when Dixon and the team were packing up to leave, I overheard them talking about an upcoming funeral. He explained that the funeral was for his son, who had died two days before. I was stunned by the extraordinary capacity of the human spirit to be generous and selfless even in times of personal despair. It was a reminder that we can never know by looking at someone what personal turmoil they are experiencing on the inside. Rather than lose himself in his own pain and loss, Dixon was dragging trees out of my yard, and all he wanted in the end was a hug. That human touch, that universal gesture that can, for a moment, dissolve the barriers that separate us — barriers that can cause confusion, distance, miscommunication, tension, enmity. All of the walls that could have separated us dissolved in that moment.

I will never forget these generous people from the Church of Latter Day Saints, for whom I feel such warmth and affection. When I thanked them, one said, “It’s the Mormon way.” Another added: “It’s the human way.” Yes, it was the very best of the human way.

AFTER THE ‘STORM’ 

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After the storm, we will rebuild our houses; we will restore the trees and attend to the aesthetics of our lawns. We will return to our daily patterns of living and fall again into our comfortable routines. And we will also rebuild and refortify those invisible walls that separate us from each other. We will return to our “tribes” and our way of living. We will resume tennis matches and bridge games and book club meetings and lunch dates, and we will comfortably re-establish those cozy silos; those safe, protected spaces that separate us from those outside of our social circles. Those moments of intimacy that we easily established with strangers in the days after the storm will evaporate or get sucked into the ether as though they never had happened. Those moments of intimacy when we became more human and more humane will fade or be quickly forgotten; moments when we easily admitted our insecurities, or expressed our fears, or displayed raw emotion, or unconditional empathy for someone else. But we shouldn’t forget.

It is good to remember that here is always pain around us, and too often we choose to not see it. There’s always extreme human need that we refuse to acknowledge, like homelessness; stories we refuse to hear. Are we doing enough when we drop off clothes and housewares at Goodwill or the Salvation Army? We don’t even have to get out of our car; it’s drive-by charity. Is this kind of giving purely selfless, or is it just an easy way to unclutter our homes and make way for the new stuff, and get a receipt for the IRS?

How much time do we spend thinking about the needs of the less fortunate in our community? The people who really need those pots dulled by use, or old sweaters, or outgrown shorts or faded curtains that are no longer stylish. The same people who were most at risk and most in need before the storm were most at risk during the storm — and they still are at risk after the storm. The people we eye with suspicion when we see them behind store counters, wearing uniforms and serving food are still there. After the storm, suspicion and distancing return to normal, and our secret aversion to “otherness” is restored.

In “Mending Wall,” poet Robert Frost provided some insightful commentary on human nature when he wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t loves a wall.” In this deceptively simple poem, Frost uses a stone wall to comment on the competing impulses within humans to commune with each other as well as the countervailing impulse to create blockages to human communication. People consciously withdraw from each other, according to the poem, and erect barriers to feeling, and touching and working together. They find differences where there are none, and when conflicts don’t exist, they create them to justify and rationalize the need for the walls they themselves build. This self-imposed separation between people is an offence against nature, according to Frost.

Frost’s powerful commentary on human nature also can be interpreted more broadly as a critique of social patterns that have the effect of walling groups of people away from each other, dividing them and insulating them from each other's needs and pain, and shielding them from their common humanity. These little insular walled “cells” that people create around themselves are breeding grounds for closed-mindedness, and small ways of seeing the world.

My experience during Hurricane Matthew taught me that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And although we reflexively replace the “bricks” and “stones” that divide us, we can change this, and instead of nurturing the seemingly impenetrable silences that prevent us from talking about, or seeing our common humanity, we can work together to establish a true community. We don’t have to wait for the next storm.

Dr. Gloria Holmes is a professor emeritus at the School of Education at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. Committed to promoting cultural literacy in schools and communities, she has worked as a diversity trainer for the Anti-Defamation League and has conducted anti-bias workshops for the Connecticut State Department of Education. Holmes is presently writing a book on school leadership and social justice, due to be published this year.