Levels of Compassion

By Louise Ure


I’ve learned a great deal about myself this last couple of weeks and an equal amount about levels of compassion.

I’ve spent the last week in the middle of the Queensland floods. Untouched by them if the truth be told, but smack dab in the middle of it all.

Five of us had travelled to the resort town of Noosa to stay in the $8 million vacation home of a friend. Balconies on all four sides. Teak decks and plantation shutters. A riverfront setting with a private boat dock and just a five minute walk from the beach and all the shops.

It bucketed down rain for five days straight. Real Singapore-style monsoon rain … a wall of water with crashes of thunder and shudder-inducing lightning. But that was fine. We could read good books stretched out on the lounges or brave the rain for a fine meal down the road. We were isolated. We were oblivious.

I entered an orgy of eating duck. Duck rillette. Duck prosciutto. Duck terrine. Duck pate. Duck and rosemary pies. Crispy skin duck. Duck confit. Duck Marylands. I became so besotted with duck that I could have paddled back to San Francisco with my own little webbed feet. It was an idyll. A perfect vacation hidden behind a wall of falling water.

Until the owner of the house called to ask if his house was floating away. “Turn on the TV. It’s a true inland tsunami and more than sixty percent of Queensland is underwater.”  Think about that. Sixty percent of Queensland is larger than France and Germany combined.

 We did. And we finally saw what the rest of the world had been watching for the last two days. Cars hauled backwards over a bridge of rushing brown water. Houses unmoored and crashing against concrete abutments. Parents who managed to push both children up onto a roof before being swept away themselves. A thirteen-year old boy who had pleaded with rescuers to take his little brother first and got his wish. I imagine open-mouthed screams from the people in those houses as lives changed and ended in the blink of an eye.

We were mesmerized … and terrified. These were scenes from only 60 or 90 kilometers away. Our little river behind the house fed into their rivers. The rain falling on us fell also on their shoulders. And yet … and yet … we were a world apart. A literal island that felt no such pain. Yes, the river rose, but not enough to swamp the house. Our streets ran gutter to gutter with water but soon emptied back to the sea. Our shops and restaurants were all still open (and serving duck) even though the roads to both the north and south were cut.

It was then I started to think about levels of compassion. For me, hearing about a great disaster is the most remote sort of compassion, a calm narrator’s voice on the radio provides great distance between me and the pain.

Reading about disasters brings it closer to home. For some reason, my imagination is spurred by specific, written descriptions that bring the sadness to life. Obviously, that kind of empathy is what we strive for in our own writing.

Watching images of the disaster makes it even more real for me. I’ll never forget the images of that little blue sedan rushing backwards in the roiling water. Or the two horses still tethered to a post who so desperately tried to keep their noses above the rising water.

The next level of impact for me is to hear about the impact on a friend or family member who is going through it. Whether it’s a diagnoses of cancer or the matter-of-fact recitation about the flood waters swirling, if it happens to someone you know, it becomes more real.

And the only thing closer than that is when it happens to you.

This time it didn’t happen to me. Or to anyone I know. But the images and words alone had the power to make me grieve. We all wanted to help, but the roads to the north were impassable. And in truth, I’m not sure that any volunteer effort I could have offered would have indeed helped and not hindered their already wonderfully coordinated efforts.

Friday, when we were more sure that the roads to the airport would be open, we drove south to Brisbane. Taking off just north east of the city, there was much brown water where city streets and parks should have been.

Virgin Blue took flood relief donations on board. Four in our party contributed almost 30% of the plane’s total. At that paltry sum, maybe I should have started my levels of compassion barometer a little lower. Or maybe these other folks on the plane were the real volunteers who had just taken off their gum boots and rain slickers and were resting their heads against soft cushions for the first time in a week.

If you’d like to help with the relief effort, the web site for donations is: http://www.qld.gov.au/floods/donate  And remember that 13-year old boy who valued his brother’s life above his own.

21 thoughts on “Levels of Compassion

  1. Shizuka

    I can't stop thinking about the 13-year old boy.
    And wondering why nature is so freaking angry these days.
    I don't know if natural disasters are getting worse or the media is covering them more.

  2. Karon Baker

    Thank you for your beautiful comments. We are safe in Melbourne watching it on tv but out 21 year old son is a soldier up there in the thick of it seeing things that no human should have to see and shouldering the grief of a nation as we watch them – helpless to do anything but "mop up". Strangers are working side by side with soldiers and qualified relief workers. You're right about volunteering. We all just want to get up there and help but the best help we can give is to dig deep. We Aussies are a generous lot – be it tsunami or fire bomb blasts or earthquake. We often lead the world in putting our hands deep into our pockets to help out. Well now world it's your turn to help us. Not Governments – mr miss or mrs average. Please help us the way we've helped you in the past. Every little bit helps!

  3. Catherine

    Shizuka the flash flood that took the 13 year old and others happened in the CBD of a town 700 metres above sea level. To us in Australia this is beyond the norm. Flooding usually comes from a combination of continuous heavy rain over weeks (sometimes combined with a cyclone) and a king tide. I'd say we're used to a more sneaky form of flooding, often a slow encroachment that drowns the land. This flash flood then went on to devastate the valley below. The police declared a part of the Lockyer Valley a crime scene for a week to search for the missing. It's only just been reopened to residents.

    An enormous amount of volunteers have been helping clean up some of Brisbane. I'm not sure how the emergency services have been able to manage as now about 75% of the state has been affected by flood.

    I've been lucky. My family has all been ok with the flooding. I know of some people that almost got caught up in the flash flooding and watched as other's struggled. I've got some friends who've been affected by flooding and in the short term they're ok for help. Mainly this is because of the massive volunteer effort. It's been said that this state's recovery will not be a sprint, but a marathon. There are a lot of people discovering that their insurance coverage, doesn't cover them for flood. It's estimated that at the moment the donations would replace everyone affected refrigerators. It's daunting.

    In between all this people are helping in whatever way they can. A group of people have been involved in baking to feed the workers and volunteers. This is expanding into a scheme to adopt a family and cook a meal a week for them. The commitment could be for a year. I used to be pretty dismissive of twitter…however the baking and delivery have had a rapid response via twitter. If anyone from Brisbane is reading and has been feeling a little useless as they're not up to the heaving lifting of the clean up, and you can bake and or help with delivery look to http://bakedrelief.org/ for more information on how to help. To adopt a family to cook for contact Mel at http://cooks-notebook.blogspot.com/2011/01/baked-relief-adopt-family.html

  4. Twist

    Louise, thank you for your compassion. I had a house in Noosa for five years and have watched the flood news with horror. Previously sent a check; you have inspired me into looking how to do more.

  5. Grace

    I read your post with tears standing in my eyes. I'm sure your appeal for compassion will reach many. The word needs to get out there to people who care. Thanks so much for your post.

  6. Allison Davis

    Compassion is a trigger for many things, for action, for guilt — moving people to write, to write a check, to emphathize and change how they behave towards one another, and sometimes it is fleeting. Watching the flooding and the horrible results brought back memories of Katrina and more recently the Haitian earthquake (I have family from Haiti and a house in New Orleans so both are close) and I wondered how we absorb all this. Louise, your as usual acute observation about the different levels of compassion made me think about how people must comparmentalize some of what happens to cope with it. (And recalling your own trials of last year.) At each level, as one becomes closer to a catastrophe, the compartmentalizing becomes more difficult — maybe the emphathy factor is stronger. Obviously when it is in your lap, you must cope (or not). Edwidge Dandicat's piece in this week's New Yorker brought some of these same thoughts to mind as she wrote about Haiti.

    For writers, I think it is so important to convey the closest level of compassion to keep it vibrant and not forgotten, to maintain the empathy, and to connect with the sorrow of strangers.

  7. Alafair Burke

    I felt a grip on my heart about that little boy (or I guess not so little after all). Thanks for the wonderful post.

  8. JT Ellison

    Having just been through the floods here in Nashville, I am overwhelmed with emotions by any mention of them. Seeing the flooding in Australia has been so hard – the stories, the horros, are all too familiar. So glad you and yours are okay, and many prayers to the folks who are suffering.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Very intense, Louise. I can feel the striking contrast between your experience vacationing with friends and the awkward realization that this was occurring inside a natural disaster. You bridged this gap very well–you brought the story closer to me and made it personal. You've had some incredible life-experiences this past year. I think God knows that you are a great communicator and he's giving you the opportunity to view events that need communicating.

  10. Barbie

    I've worked really hard to make myself immune to that sort of thing. I don't usually feel personally affected by these world-wide tragedies. I'm not a bad person, and I feel really sorry in my head for everyone who's going through those unimaginable hard times, but I don't actually let myself feel it. I live in Brazil, I see a lot of heartbreaking things here daily. I see children begging on the street, dirty, hungry, hurt. In in the rain. I see women battered. If I actually felt for every horrible thing I saw, it's break me. Right now, Rio de Janeiro is suffering with floods and landslides. It's across the country from me, but it's all everyone talks about. I say prayers, I'll make donations, but I don't let myself get involved enough to hurt.

    Having said that, I'm not as cold-hearted as it seems. It's mostly a defense mechanism, which happened automatically, I think, but I'm aware of and unwilling to change. I feel, a lot. Too much, which is why I have to protect myself. Though these global disasters don't get to me, my heart breaks reading the news sometimes. I read a piece about children being killed in Nigeria accused of witchcraft, and it still haunts me. I *just* read, a few minutes ago, about a man who was arrested for raping his eleven year old daughter and threatening to kill her and her mother, and my heart broke. Anger flared. And I hope he rots in hell. The situation in countries in which women are objectified and treated like garbage (you know, those countries with laws that he husband can force the wife to have sex if she doesn't want to give it to him) enrages in a way that nothing else does.

    I feel deeply for my family and friends and what they're going through. Then, I'm all compassion and heart. The very least I can do is give them all I have in such difficult moment.

    There's just so much I can feel. I need to protect myself, too.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    What a beautiful and vivid and haunting post. You are still so close to eternity, Louise – that door is still wide open for you.

    The 13 year old is striking to me not because I'm surprised but because – THAT'S an older sibling. I know that feeling completely.

  12. Catherine

    That little boy's selflessness encompassed his Mother too. After his brother was rescued people trying to save him say he was calling out for his Mum to be saved first. The rescue rope snapped before that could happen. Their funeral is today.

  13. Katherine Howell

    Thanks Louise for this lovely post. i live on Queensland's Gold Coast, an hour's drive south of Brisbane, so had no flooding but friends in Brisbane have lost a great deal. I also was flying yesterday and the staff were still collecting but everyone I've spoken to is donating online or buying and delivering groceries. A large part of the state of Victoria is now under water too. Money is still needed, and aside from the site you mentioned people can go to the Red Cross http://www.redcross.org.au/default.asp and to the RSPCA (same as your ASPCA) http://www.rspca.org.au/. Writers across the country and around the world are helping through a charity auction on Facebook too http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1782731817126&set=a.1357862555660.49966.1504407936&comments#!/pages/Writers-Auction-4-Queensland-Flood-Appeal/126145554117564 Thanks.

  14. Rachel Walsh

    Thank you for blogging about this, Louise, and raising awareness. It is devastation on a scale that has not been previously encountered in Australia; the clean up and the fix up are going to take months and months to be done, the sorrow and grief, much longer, if ever. Watching the tragedy unfold from my southern corner of Australia was surreal, to say the least.

    I'm very glad you were safe.

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