The North Bay fires have been devastating and virtually everyone has either been affected or knows someone who has. In many ways, life will never be the same in the North Bay.
However, true recovery includes far more than rebuilding our homes and replacing our possessions; it must also include caring for and nurturing our spirits.
Those have been damaged as well.
So here are some words of comfort coming from 70 years of growing and learning and living through some of my own personal disasters.
1) Your feelings are not coming from the fires
People’s faces often turn to stone when I tell them this. However, this does not come from wishful thinking; it comes from decades of research in cognitive psychology all around the world starting in the early 1960s with the book, “A Guide to Rational Living” by Dr. Albert Ellis. (Dr. Ellis is regarded as the second most influential psychologist in the history of psychology. Carl Rogers is usually No. 1; Freud is No. 3.)
If our feelings are not coming from the fires, where are they coming from? They are coming from our beliefs about the fires.
This is the reason that everyone does not react to the devastation in the same way, one person seems to be quite resilient, while others are so devastated that it may take them months to recover emotionally, if they ever do.
What makes the difference? Were they born with a resilient constitution? Are they natural optimists who always see the glass half-full, or pessimists who see it half-empty. In the face of this conflagration, can they somehow ‘pep themselves up?”
What makes one come out stronger, and another not?
The answer is in their beliefs about the fires. More specifically, it is in what they are saying to themselves about themselves and the fires and their future.
For example, I have found myself making a lot of presentations after the fires and I have met some amazing and recipient people whose beliefs about themselves and the fires are quite an inspiration.
For instance, I made a presentation to a Rotary group in Santa Rosa one week after the fires had begun and gave away my books afterwards. After handing a book to a gentleman standing there with his dog in tow, he looked at me and smiled. “I have lost everything, so this book is my first new possession.” And his smile was wonderfully genuine.
2) Feel your feelings – They are neither good nor bad
The North Bay fires have made many of us out of sorts. We may feel anxious, energized, encouraged, angry, despondent, grief, numb, loved, cursed and deeply, deeply tired...all within an afternoon. This is completely normal. It’s typical to experience a wide range of powerful emotions following a traumatic experience—and sometimes, to feel nothing at all. Allow whatever emotions come up for you to simply be present and acknowledged, even if they feel uncomfortable or don’t make sense. Your mind is processing the deep trauma of everything that’s happened and that can be a messy, confusing, but ultimately healing journey.
3) This is a marathon, not a sprint
Now that the fires are a couple of weeks behind us, after the cameras have been turned off and our national attention span moves on to the next thing, the North Bay will be finding itself in the slow and tedious business of true healing. Recovery is a process that requires time and space to work itself out and our emotions are notoriously two steps behind or ahead of our circumstances. You may not feel the true depth of your loss until after you’ve replaced your furniture, installed new floors and paid the contractor. This is all part of the long journey toward real recovery.
4) Create meaning along the way.
The fires have the world around us feel like a random, chaotic and dangerous place. All of the pain and destruction can feel meaningless and make you feel spent and empty. Over time, these attitudes can lead us toward depression or increased anxiety if we aren’t proactive about finding meaning along the way. Creating meaning following a traumatic experience doesn’t mean relying on trite, overly simplistic platitudes like “everything happens for a reason.” It means finding your purpose in the midst of pain. For many, this looks like volunteering at a shelter or food bank. For others, this looks like calling up your loved ones and checking in for the first time in a long time. Creating meaning looks like knocking on your neighbor’s door and offering a hand when needed. Leaning into this purposeful kind of life is an integral part of how we move forward together following disasters.
As we rebuild, recover, and reemerge into our lives following collective traumas like natural disasters, we must not forget that our spirits and our hearts are as much in need of attention as our homes and possessions. Allow yourself to feel what you need to feel as you move forward.
Remember, we truly are all in this together.
Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent” and conducts “The Winners Circle” every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. Contact Steven at 480-5007 or go his website at stevenrcampbell.com to ask about his one-day free monthly seminar.