Recovery is in the people
I had the privilege last weekend to witness an amazing moment of honesty and courage. Actually, there was more than one. The one that involved tears made me cry, the angry words of frustration had me nodding in sympathy.
No, I wasn’t cheering the footy victory under the glorious new lights, although I know there were plenty of courageous, honest moments at Simonds Stadium on the same night. We were talking bushfire recovery at a local community meeting, listening to a ‘Firefox’ tell her story about what happened in Kinglake.
Firefoxes is a team of women who offer to share their story, and the opportunity for ongoing connection, to disaster-affected people as a way of helping people cope.
The tears came on Saturday evening when a local resident who had lost her home in the fire described not just the feeling of losing everything, but the reality of living in someone else’s house for an indefinite period.
This lovely person consistently acknowledged how grateful she and her husband are for the accommodation, but she broke down when explaining how desperately she needs a space, a place that is not someone else’s, to curl up with a book or to just hang out.
This may not appear to be a big deal; after all, bushfires are dramatic and destructive and this seemingly ‘small ask’ is easy to dismiss, but it was a critical moment for me. It was a heart-rending realisation that recovery and renewal is as much about the daily minutiae as the big, politically sexy infrastructure replacement.
Even more importantly, it brought home that recovery is about people, not stuff. Our fabulously communicative Firefox made a beautiful statement about communities not recovering brick by brick, instead they are rebuilt “person by person”.
It seems that people who have lost everything have the opportunity to recreate what they had, or create a new and different version of their old life, or to choose an entirely alternate future.
As I learn more about the impact of natural or any other disaster, I suspect that whichever choice people make it involves a transformation. Significant, life-changing events do not occur as a series of incremental shifts; they usually move the paradigm completely.
The experience brought to mind an email conversation I’d had with an important mentor in my life, who shared his thoughts a few months back on change versus transformation.
My friend and mentor wrote about making improvements to something – say a steam train to a bullet train – where the best outcome is still based on limitations of the current system. There may be positive change but the basic tracks, wheels and parking issues remain. He noted that change is based on history and involves a lot of actions, alignment and checking. Also that change is safe but it takes a lot of effort and energy – a lot of people and resources.
“Transformation on the other hand, totally alters the state of a process or system. When you look at a butterfly then you will not be able to tell that a couple of weeks before it was a caterpillar. It does not resemble anything of what it used to be.”
There were many more gems of thought and a powerful sensitivity to the challenges in the transformation process in what he wrote, but that is for another day.
I thought back to the fire-affected community trying to reorganise their lives, barely two months after the event. The number and complexity of issues are staggering - from stockfeed shortages to melted bins, obliterated street numbers to emotional trauma, fencing repairs to volunteer insurance - and everything in between.
For many people, the opportunity for incremental change has simply been burnt to cinders. Transformation has been thrust upon them with no chance to prepare and no map to navigate the way through. “Onward and upward” people can say lightly and tritely, but when you’re feeling down, forward is not always the preferred direction.
I write only as an observer with complete humility about ‘knowing how people feel’. I don’t. But I have seen glimpses and I can feel the angst even though everyone is trying so hard to be brave. Courage in spades. And picks, axes, chainsaws and rakes.
While not the same as devastating natural disasters, there are striking similarities in the challenges for local people losing not just their employment, but their work identity, the brand they love and possibly their future plans. To say nothing of the community losing the pride associated with monumental global organisations from our midst.
In all cases, let’s be aware of the different way people handle loss, the phases of recovery and the need to commit for the long term. When people are ready, we can also see the exciting opportunity for transformation.