Sunday, June 15, 2014

How to Respond Effectively to a Crisis or Tragedy

Often, when we hear about a crisis or tragedy, we feel helpless. After all, what can we do? But there is a way to respond effectively. Here are three steps how.  

1. Do what you can to help. Assistance can be divided into four areas. Sometimes, we can only help in one or two areas, other times, in all four:

a. Spiritual. Choose something to do in the merit of those affected. For example, each day, say an extra Psalm, give extra charity, do an extra mitzvah or be extra careful to avoid a sin.

b. Financial. A crisis can quickly throw a family or individual into debt, with people needing to take time off from work and incurring additional expenses. Offering an interest free loan, a cash gift or directing them to organizations that help people in their circumstance, can be a real lifeline. (As best you can, support those organizations.)

c. Material. Cook or shop for them, or invite them for Shabbat meals. Carpool, offer to watch their kids or take the kids on an outing. If you do not know the people personally, see if you can find someone you know in common to ask them if they are interested in your help.

While giving guidance can sometimes be helpful, do not offer unsolicited advice. First determine if they are interested; people can easily become overwhelmed by an onslaught of well-intentioned suggestions.

Those in crisis are more likely to accept your offer of assistance if you are specific. Say, “Can I do X for you?” instead of, “If you need me for anything, you have my number.” Talk with them to identify the areas that would be most helpful for them, and respect their decision if they are not currently interested in your assistance. You can ask them again at a later date, if you think they may be open to it then.

d. Emotional. Just offering a shoulder to lean on or a listening ear goes a long way. We often overlook the importance of this type of help, but to people going through pain, the emotional support of family and friends is essential.

We need to have two phases of help. The first phase is in the beginning, when we do whatever we can to stabilize the crisis. Then comes the second phase, when we figure out how much help we can offer on an ongoing basis without depleting ourselves or ignoring other responsibilities.

Enlist the help of others and coordinate who does what. This will ensure that no one person is overburdened and that the people receive the help they need for as long as they need.

Our goal is to help people get back on their feet and help themselves, to the extent they can. With our encouragement and assistance, people can often do much more than they or we envisioned.

Some crises are loud – everyone knows about them. Others are silent and are easy to overlook, e.g., a person out of work or chronically ill, a family unable to pay their bills, a single having trouble finding a spouse, a child struggling in school or in a difficult family situation, or a teen at risk. They too require our attention and help. Use a “loud” crisis, especially a distant one that you are unable to be actively involved with, to motivate you to get involved with the “silent” crises taking place locally in your community; choose one and take the first step.

2. Look for ways to grow. No one knows for sure why crises or tragedies happen; only God does. But what we do know is that they are an opportunity for growth. Ask, “How can I grow from this? How can I use this to become a better person and stay focused on what’s really important in life?”

If nothing specific resonates with you, speak to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for guidance.

There is often an area in our lives where we have been sitting on the fence, either something we are doing we know is wrong and want to stop, or a mitzvah observance we want to strengthen. Use a crisis to propel you off the fence and make that one change you have been contemplating.

We frequently stumble in the area of interpersonal relationships. We may make excuses as to why it is okay to gossip about or hate certain people, why it is not a sin to cause them emotional or financial harm. But when a crisis strikes, all those excuses sound hollow and we realize how petty and wrong we were. Use a crisis as a catalyst to reach out to those from whom you are estranged or to those whom you have wronged. Take the first step toward peace or asking for forgiveness.

There are times when we pray intensely but the crisis continues. We cry out (Psalms 44:24), “Awaken! Why do you seem to sleep O Lord?” Often though, aren’t we the ones who are asleep and continue in our misguided ways? We need to wake ourselves up. Once we have changed for the better, we strengthen our prayers that God change the crisis for the better.

If a crisis turns into a tragedy, that does not mean we did not do enough or that our prayers were in vain. God’s ways are beyond us and no prayer is ever wasted. Good will come from those prayers; what and when we do not know.

3. Strengthen your faith. Having faith can help you be appropriately concerned about a crisis, without becoming consumed by it. If you are constantly checking the news, thinking about the crisis all the time, and walking around in a cloud of despair and worry – no one benefits; not you and not those affected.

With faith, we believe that God runs the world and that whatever happens – whether an outcome we want or one we dread – it will be for the ultimate good; everything will work out in the end, whether in this world or in the next (as long as we put in our best effort, especially spiritual ones). With faith, we cannot explain how things will work out, but we know they will. With faith, we know that God is by our side and that if we try to assist those in need and grow from a crisis, He will help us.

Although we may initially feel helpless when we hear about a crisis or tragedy, there is no time or reason for despair. We have work to do, and God will give us the strength we need to do it.

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