Sadly, the major flood in Boulder and a Connecticut-sized section of northern Colorado inundated the RUPI office and the entire finished downstairs of our house. The power of water is a dramatic thing. The automated phone call commanding us to “get to higher ground” sent us upstairs while we watched ourselves become an island with a small river surging through the front yard and another through the back. Happily, there was no structural damage. We were however overwhelmed by acts of kindness and right uses of power. Much of Boulder was untouched, while in other neighborhoods houses were ripped in half. During the last day of rain, ten neighbors were out with shovels and pick-axes trying to divert water away from our house before the second torrent arrived. They just showed up. Over three days, in fact, we counted 48 friends and neighbors who came to help rip out carpet and sheetrock, power-wash four inches of mud from the driveway, drag out dozens of soaking boxes of stored goods from a four-foot-high crawlspace, and spray vinegar to prevent the development of gravely problematic mold and mildew. A woman unknown to us even came to our house with casserole, bread, and a bottle of wine. She said, “I didn’t get any damage. I drove by and saw you all working and thought, ‘What can I do? I can cook.’ So I’ve brought you some dinner. I’m sure that is the last thing you are thinking about right now.” Her kindness to a stranger inspired a river of tears from me. Finally, the FEMA inspector was compassionate and efficient, and within four days I received a financial grant deposited right into my checking account. Even our too-often-dysfunctional government can often use its considerable power and resources wisely, quickly, and well.
I’m currently reading a very informative and insightful book by Mark Matousek: Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good. Doing research on this topic, Mark found was that “we feel an uplifting emotion when we find others behaving in virtuous ways.” He calls this emotion “elevation” and lists it as “among the more mysterious gifts of our mirror neuron system.” He continues: “The mere act of witnessing character, virtue, beauty, and truth tickles our vagus nerve, which stimulates oxytocin production and evokes in us, among other empathic behaviors, the desire to be better people living better lives.” (Matousek: page 66) Perhaps you recognize this response, not just to emergencies, but when watching a movie, hearing a story, or reading a book about someone doing the right thing even when things seem hopeless or the odds are stacked. Think of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life or the book Les Miserables.
I saw my theoretical definition of right use of power come to vibrant life in our community.
I experienced individuals, even strangers, using their personal and professional power to help others heal from pain and trauma. A group of acupuncturists, massage therapists, and body-workers set up a little clinic near our home and offered free sessions for anyone who had been affected by the flood. (Ren and I took advantage of their generosity on the first day.) I experienced power used to repair harm (in this case, to property) when friends and neighbors came by for a couple of hours at a time to help dig and rake our yard back toward order. I experienced power used sensitively to deepen relationships as people worked together and showered us with empathy and good listening. I experienced power used for the common good as individuals, organizations, churches, community groups, municipal agencies, national and other branches of government, road crews, helicopter rescue teams, police, firemen and women, the National Guard, and more came together to respond. One anonymous person said to a friend, “Please give these $100 bills out to people you know who might need them.”
This experience of the power of water, professional skills, people working together, governmental resources and expertise, and human resilience and heroism will continue to nourish Ren, me, and many of our fellow Coloradans as a deep, good well of memories that we can draw on when we experience future misuses of power. I pass this story on to you so that you may benefit from it also.