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A Changed Landscape: The Indian Ocean Tsunami

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Indian Ocean Tsunami

Post Tsunami Tremors

At least three things have changed forever since the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged South Asia:

Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. Families were torn asunder, never to be the same again.

The map of the devastated region has been altered; coastlines and ports will need to be recharted.

The unprecedented outpouring of humanitarian aid.

However, the question remains whether the fourth, and perhaps most important landscape of all will change: Our personal lives.

As we speak, our interest wanes as we recede back to our quotidian lives, just as the tsunami waters receded back to sea. New headlines replace the old ones, as we go on with our lives.

A fascinating article in the NY Times Business section (of all places) captured a unique modern phenomenon resulting from the tsunami. Stuart Elliot writes in the column on advertising (January 5), how the new year’s resolution-related commercial pitches are colliding with the news of the tsunami.

You see, January is a key marketing season for the self-improvement industries in America. During this season “Americans are inundated with advertising blitzes intended to spur them into paroxysms of self-improvement, centered on making and keeping resolutions for the new year. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent encouraging people to eat better, exercise, undergo makeovers and spruce up their wardrobes, not to mention give up smoking and other bad habits that can be erased through buying something.

But this year the unexpected tsunami changed all that. “The 2005 version of the annual festival of self-help commercialism is unexpectedly confronting a potential distraction: news of the devastation caused by the tsunami in South Asia and the subsequent relief efforts. At the same time Americans are being asked to be self-absorbed, they are also being asked to think of others.”

Now listen to this: “That could jeopardize the effectiveness of scores of elaborate, expensive campaigns for foods, beverages, cosmetics, exercise and weight-loss regimens, vitamins, nutritional supplements and other products.

“You’ll have a large section of the population ‘just about me,’ but you’ll also have another group who will be concerned about the tsunami victims,” said Carol Cone, chief executive of Cone Inc. in Boston, an agency owned by the Omnicom Group that specializes in cause-related marketing campaigns. As a result, “the ad messages are not going to be as effective,” she said, particularly when it comes to consumers in the so-called Generation Y market segment. Born in the late 1970’s through the mid-1990’s, they are “the most socially conscious in our segmentation research,” she said.”

Do we cry or laugh at this dilemma? Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions displaced by an enormous earthquake and tsunami that have literally reshaped the very planet upon which we live, and this is “jeopardizing” the effectiveness of scores of elaborate, expensive marketing campaigns…

Rarely are we honored to see such a prominent display of the clash, beneath the façade, between “water” and “land” – between selfishness and selflessness, between the trap of our “industrialized” lives and our inner sense of what is right.

Make no mistake: This is a battle for our souls.

And we are being called upon to choose.

Not to choose, mind you, between crass materialism and ethereal spiritualism. Asceticism is not an option, nor is self-indulgence. Our calling is to integrate the two. But we are being called upon to choose which will take priority, which will be the means and which the end: Will self-actualizing materialism lead the way, with occasional spats of selfless self-righteousness, or will dedication to a higher cause lead the way, utilizing our material blessings to fuel its journey.

We are being given the opportunity and the gift to choose who will lead and who will follow: Will your body serve as a vehicle for your soul, or will your soul serve as vehicle for your body?

We always have before us these two choices, but there are times when doors of opportunity open up – quite literally, doors between two worlds, with only our perception and experience to block the way – that allow us to glimpse another reality. But then the doors close as quickly as they opened.

And it’s up to us to either follow along, or to hold on to our newfound insights.

The battle often takes a cynical turn. You can even say that the clash is between cynical meaninglessness and purposeful meaningfulness.

It’s not very difficult to argue that all this outpouring of philanthropy is simply a reaction of guilt and conscience, fueled by effective PR, to respond in some way to all the tragic images streaming into our homes from Southeast Asia. Cynics can dismiss all this as a fleeting reaction – a blip in the screen – of otherwise human greed that will shortly revert to the status quo as we succumb to the force of narcissistic gravity. The abovementioned January marketing dilemma is just one cold example of our indifference.

One person wrote to me last week criticizing my lauding the outpouring of international aid to the stricken countries. He challenged my premise with these words: “Do you really believe that the nations are so kind? One can only wonder what type of aid the nations would offer Israel if such a disaster would happen there (heaven forefend)! In a bit of time investigations will begin to emerge as to where all the charity went. Don’t be deceived by the sudden outpouring of kindness, it’s simply a result of ulterior motives, many of them quite self-serving.” To underscore his point, he sent me this linked article No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.

I have to disagree with him. Not because there is no abuse taking place or because all the giving is of pure intent. But because there is another way of looking at the human race, which counters the dismissive cynical approach; and from this perspective, when people offer their support for a good cause, even if it was manipulated and driven by ulterior engines, it reflects their inherent spiritual nature.

This perspective believes that we are inherently giving people due to the nature of our Divine souls. However the soul is usually trapped in a narcissistic material world and a selfish needy body, and it takes a tragedy and trauma to shake up our systems, revealing beneath the cracks a deeper reality of our own spiritual selves.

Indeed, “water” (soul) and “land” (body) are the actual metaphors used to describe these two realities, as discussed in last week’s article, Tsunami.

However, these cracks don’t stay open very long. After our initial awakening and inspiration, we gravitate back to our complacent routines.

This is where our own choice comes into play. Will we allow the “matrix” of our “land” reality take back control, or will we allow our “water” consciousness keep us connected to our source and our purpose.

So there are two diametrically opposed ways of looking at people: As selfish beasts with passing aberrations (not so harsh: anomalies) of generosity, or as selfless souls locked in selfish bodies. (For more elaboration on these two psychological models, see a previous article, Psychology Today).

In a second NY Times business article, a day later (January 6) the same writer writes about a new initiative directed toward encouraging volunteerism amongst aging and retiring, self-indulgent, baby boomers.

The Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health begins an effort this week that includes advertising, events, the publication of a book and a public relations campaign, all aimed at promoting volunteerism, amongst the baby boomers, those 75 million to 77 million Americans born from 1946 to 1964.

The daunting question is whether “the baby boomers, long tagged as self-involved if not self-absorbed, be cajoled into not only thinking of others but doing for others?”

Elliot cites others saying, “there is this two-sided quality to boomers. Boomers are certainly capable of amazing self-involvement, but when something captures our interest, we will band together and make a difference.”

Even if as many as half the retiring baby boomers – “the most indulged, and most self-indulged, generation in history” – decide that ‘this is my time and I don’t care about anybody else,’ that would still leave “tens of millions of boomers who will decide that’s enormously unsatisfying and they would not feel useful if they weren’t taking meaningful portions of time to give back.”

This volunteering effort grew out of a survey sponsored last year by the foundation and the school, titled “Reinventing Aging: Baby Boomers and Civic Engagement.” A decision was made to focus the appeals initially on efforts to get boomers involved in mentoring young people. That is why the campaign that starts this week carries the theme: “Share what you know. Mentor a child.”

The theme is intended to leverage the fact that “boomers have an optimistic and positive attitude toward the future,” as well as to “overcome the barrier that people put up when they say, ‘I don’t have any special skills,’ by telling them, ‘You have this life of experience.’”

So there you have the choice baby boomers and all the rest of us: Will you be a giver or a taker?

Whenever a major event takes place in the world, especially one that has tragically affected so many lives, it is a wake-up call to all of us.

The tsunami came and went, changing many things in its wake. Future change however is in our hands.

Worse than the tragedy itself is perhaps the utter senselessness of it. One of the greatest acts of human dignity is when survivors of tragedy transform their loss into growth, and their pain into positive change. Instead of succumbing to demoralization, we channel the deep anguish into a powerful surge of deeper consciousness and outpouring of goodness.

And that’s in our hands. We can in some way redeem even a tragedy if it transforms the people affected to become better people.

The question today is: Will we change our personal landscapes, or allow this tragedy to go into history leaving no lasting positive change in our lives?

The tsunami – and all the permanent changes it has created – must beckon each of us to ask the question: Has my landscape changed for the better?

When we answer yes, the collective effect will ripple through the universe and through history, bringing the world to fulfilling its ultimate purpose, “filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”

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