My neighbor just came back from a week-long trip up North to help with the recovery efforts. She is very brave, and a specialist in art therapy for children. I think it was a tough, effective week for her and those children who met her will never forget her kindness. We are all glad to have her safely back in Yokohama. She came by today for an emotional update on the week in Tohoku.
Here are my thoughts on what she told us:
1) This will not be over soon
With the widespread devastation, the rebuilding effort has yet to even begin in many of the most hard-hit areas. The clean-up alone will be monumental, let alone the amount of work needed to repair infrastructure and basic living conditions. I am guessing a total recovery may be 10 years away.
2) There are two kinds of volunteers
I suppose you need two kinds of volunteers: one kind that are practical and tough, and able to endure the harsh reality of what has happened without losing focus on what must practically be done as part of the recovery effort. There is clean-up, there is hazardous waste removal, garbage disposal, waste handling, and a million other low-level, emotionally difficult jobs that need doing. they are not glamorous, but they are the heart and soul of recovery. The other kind are those who can provide a human element to the survivors. In particular, medical professionals and therapists. Nearly everyone, even relief workers, suffers from stress trauma and emotional dysfunction right now. It will be a long road to recovery for those that must go on with their lives having lost so much. My neighbor is one of those bright, talented people who can help make a difference. This is not just about the logistics of getting supplies from point A to point B. It has a lot more to do with keeping the survivors surviving - helping them cope and find a new direction for their lives. They need to learn how to live, laugh, love again. How to sing and dance and draw and play again. They need to face their fears, their shame, and their guilt and overcome it. The people are strong, but they need to get their dignity back. This is the human recovery and it, too, will take time.
3) The Disaster Isn't Really Over Yet
For many, their lives are in free-fall. Since March 11, so many bad things have happened and they just keep coming. We all have the strength to pick ourselves up and get back on track again, but how do you know when the storm is over? The Earth is still shaking, the radiation is still silently washing over everything, and we still have no idea what will happen tomorrow. It's like being bombed - you could come out of the shelter and pick up the pieces if you knew the bombing was over. Nobody knows, and that is the scary part. Libya soon eclisped Japan as the news headline, much in the way that Tohoku eclipsed similar disaster in New Zealand in February. Viewers have short attention spans - survivors don't. I hope those involved in the relief effort have the fortitude to see this through to the end; until Tohoku is back on its feet again and the people can smile. It will break my heart if this disaster ends up like a TV show (30 minutes including commercial breaks) after which everyone shrugs and goes back to business as usual like it never happened. Even more, I wish the survivors, especially the children, could change the channel to something better, but they can't. If the world really loves and supports Japan and the Japanese people as I believe they do, I hope they do not forget.
4) An Ocean Of Tears Just Makes Everything Wet
Everyone cries. I cry, too. There is only so much crying that can be done, until the time comes to ACT. There will be time for more crying, for many years to come. For now, it is most important to begin to retake control. To give people routines and tasks, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, to help them restore order to their personal chaos. Many have lost everything. Everyone has lost something. Step by step people must exert control over their surroundings and their lives in order to regain their sanity and overcome the incredible sense of helplessness and overwhelming loss they feel. The children need to play again, to dance, to draw and sing and to listen to music. They need to touch anything that was normal before, just to remind themselves it was not a dream. People need to take baths, to prove to themselves their social fabric is not torn beyond repair. These little rituals are important parts of mental well-being and will help people cope with the tragedy. They must cling to the hope that their way of life was not washed away along with their cars and houses and business and schools. My heart truly goes out to those affected. We all have a social resposibility to hold them close to us for as long as it takes, whatever it takes. We must cry together so that one day we can laugh together. We need to give more than money. We need to give our humanity to those who have had theirs taken away. 頑張ろう日本！！