There is something in us—as members of society—that wants to share the burden when we see true human suffering. We have seen this outpouring of compassion through countless disasters—the famine in Ethiopia, the 9/11 attacks, the Indonesia earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, and now the multiple disasters taking place in the northern part of the island of Honshu, Japan and distress across the middle east. Historically, when tragedy strikes, the world has pulled together. We set aside our allegiances and our political differences. There is definitely something in us that resonates compassionately when confronted with tragedy. And it doesn’t matter how far away or how unlikely it is to affect our own personal lives.
People facing disaster, such as the people of Japan, are often humble about their own tragedy. A newscaster from the UK reported that a Japanese woman remarked to him that she couldn’t believe he came all this way just to cover their trouble. It’s hard to accept help. Witness Myanmar after the Indonesian tsunami, the governor of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and the US government after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In each instance, even though compassionate assistance was clearly needed, leaders avoided it.
Leaders are tested in trying times. A resonant leader will accept the help of others in a time of crisis, because she or he knows that even the best leaders need help under the worst circumstances. A leader lacking in emotional intelligence may see compassionate assistance and empathy as transactional behaviors; accepting help is seen as a way to incur debt. In such a scenario, some leaders may feel that their leadership is doubly-challenged—they are not able to deal with the crisis, and they become beholden to those who out of sheer empathy want to share the burden. However, a resonant leader feels no shame in accepting help in untenable circumstances, because she knows that people need to respond compassionately to human tragedy.
So, if you are feeling deeply for the people of Japan, or for those fighting for freedom in Libya, or for the women of Congo—it is time to do something. Step up, step out, gather your courage, and do something. Your actions don’t have to be heroic. You don’t have to go to Japan, join the protesters in North Africa, or protect a woman from abusive soldiers. But maybe you can find a Japanese community in your city and offer your support. Maybe you can learn more about Libya, or about Islam so you can truly join in the dialogue, and through doing so, help. Maybe you can simply pay attention to what is happening to the women of Congo and speak out as the opportunity arises.
Being mindful of issues closer to home is also important. Sometimes very small actions can make a tremendous difference. Things such as donating excess food to a local food bank, dropping off clothes and shoes to the local Salvation Army rather than throwing them away, picking up and properly disposing of a piece of glass you see on a playground, offering a kind word when kindness seems to be scarce—these are all meaningful actions.
Simply directing our energy to those in need can help. Bravely being mindful of those in need—directing our energy and sending our love—these are actions that we can all take.
Annie McKee, Chris Allen Thomas, and the Teleos Leadership Institute team
****NOTICE: The Japanese Mothers Association of Philadelphia is holding a fundraiser, with a bazaar, traditional Asian dance, and music at Trinity Church in Center City on the 26th of March. We ask that people, to the extent that they can, bring items we can sell at the bazaar. Items can be dropped off at Teleos Leadership Institute. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
A Selection of Charitable Organizations
Japan Earthquake Relief Fund: