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Front Page » September 13, 2005 » Opinion » Guest Editorial: Four Things You Must do When Tragedy Str...
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Guest Editorial: Four Things You Must do When Tragedy Strikes

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Hurricane Katrina is a reminder that you never know when or where tragedy is going to strike. As the fourth anniversary of 9/11 passes, we are also reminded that we do not choose tragedy-it chooses us-randomly and suddenly. Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of hurricane Katrina. You may be trying to weather the storms in your own personal life right now, whether it is the loss of a job, a divorce, the loss of a loved one, or a terminal illness.

When tragedy strikes, our first reaction is shock. We may have had some forewarning, but it's never enough. We never have enough time, money, friends or resources to prevent a tragedy of such enormous proportions as hurricane Katrina. Some people run for higher ground. Some people lash themselves to the most solid thing they can find. Some people find a hole in the ground and hold on for dear life.

Your first reaction to the tragedy could mean life or death for you or someone you love. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to follow these four steps for surviving any tragedy.

Choose to Believe

It is essential that you stop and get your bearings. Assess where you are and what resources you have around you. Stop and assess the approaching storm for what it is. Acknowledge it, but don't blow it out of proportion. Yes, cancer and hurricanes are still terminal, but plenty of people survive them.

Just a few days after Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, he held a press conference in which he boldly announced, "I want you all to know that I intend to beat this disease, and further I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist." That was back in 1996, when most people were predicting his early demise.

Was he a prophet? Did he receive a message in a dream? Did he know something that we don't know? No. None of the above.

Lance Armstrong made an internal decision to believe and to survive. Then he announced it publicly. This public verbalization of his belief seared it into his brain and his very soul. It came to pass because he really believed it and this undying belief helped him bring it to pass.

You can do the same thing. Acknowledge your opponent for what it is and then calmly, but firmly announce to the world that you will beat this thing.

Double Check the Facts

When an acorn fell on her head, "Henny Penny" thought the sky was falling. This belief became a self-fulfilling prophecy which led to tragic results for her and her friends. This story is a reminder that we need to double check the facts to make sure our perception is consistent with reality.

Remember, the biggest obstacle that is standing in your way is not the obstacle, it is what you believe about the obstacle. But our beliefs are not always consistent with reality. The bedouin tribes who live in the desert have a story they tell their children which can teach us great wisdom.

It goes like this. A man sees a cloud of dust approaching on the sand dunes in the horizon. He says to himself, "It is a great beast coming to eat me and my family." He runs inside to get his gun. Now he can see that it is a man in black riding a black horse racing straight toward him. He says to himself, "No, it is my enemy coming to steal my well!" He raises his rifle and takes steady aim, waiting for the man to get in range. As he sees the man approaching through the sites of his rifle, he realizes "No, it is my brother!"

What you believe about the obstacle has more of an impact on how you deal with the situation than the obstacle itself.

How do you check your perceptions against reality? Follow these steps:

1. First, realize that you have the option, and maybe even the responsibility to stop and confirm whether or not things are really as you perceive them to be.

2. Double check the evidence around you to see if you've missed anything.

3. Quickly assess all the evidence in the time that you have.

4. Know what questions must be answered before you decide.

5. If it is impossible to obtain all of the information you need in the amount of time you have, analyze the information that you do have, make educated guesses about the missing information, and follow your training and gut instinct.

Go to Those Who Are Already Outside the Box

In an emergency, you don't have time to brain-storm with a focus group to come up with thousands of creative ideas and on how to deal with the situation. You must think and act quickly and decisively. You don't have time to get yourself out of "the box." The quickest way to adjust your thinking is to go to those who are already outside the box, and perhaps don't even know the box exists. Who are these people?

In 1938, on the eve of the Nazi Holocaust, a family of Jews in Sighet Hungary were huddled around their kitchen table trying to figure out what was about to happen to them. By order of military command, all stores and offices belonging to Jews were closed. No Jew was allowed to go out, except in the late afternoon to buy food. Jews no longer had the right to sell anything. Whoever opposed these decrees would be shot.

The German army began raiding Jewish homes, taking jewelry, silver, foreign currency, and precious stones-anything of value. The Jewish sector of the city became a sealed off ghetto where no one could come or go without permission.

But the Weisel family had a Christian housekeeper named Maria who had a cabin up in the mountains. She would sneak in cheese, eggs, fruit, and vegetables to the Weisels. She offered to sneak them out of the ghetto and begged them to escape with her to the cabin where they would be safe. But the Jewish intellectuals, dignitaries, and clergy had always taught that the Jewish community should always stick together-no matter what. The Weisel family declined.

The next day the trucks came. The entire Jewish community was hauled off to the death camps and Elie Weisel was the only survivor of his family.

If you go exclusively to those who share your belief system and think like you do, you will not learn anything new. Conventional wisdom must be tossed out the window when tragedy strikes. But sometimes the only way to "think outside the box" is to listen to those who are already outside the box.

In this case it was a Christian housekeeper living in a Jewish community. When tragedy strikes, don't ignore those quiet whispers from unconventional sources.

Focus a Purpose Bigger Than Yourself

When tragedy strikes, our instincts kick in and our first thoughts and actions are for self-preservation. But, there are a few rare souls out there, who override these instincts by making a conscious, deliberate choice to focus on a purpose bigger than themselves. We call them heroes.

Last year, in the little town of Beslan, Russia, a group of masked men stormed a school and took the whole school hostage. A 17 year old girl named Karina Begayeva had a chance to escape with other children who hid in the boiler room. But she turned back and ran into the school gymnasium where most of the kids were being held.

Why would she do this? She saw what others could not see. Her brother was in there. She knew that her brother could not walk because of his withered leg.

Over the next three days, the terrorists made all of the children strip down to their underwear and refused to give them food or water. When the children cried, they shot rifles into the air and threatened to kill them if they did not stop crying. They forced them to drink their own urine. After three days without food or water, the children began to grow weak and sick.

Outside the building, 10,000 Russian troops kept watch, waiting for an opportunity to strike or to negotiate a peaceful solution. But then the sounds of an explosion and gunfire filled the air. Naked school children ran from the school being shot at by the terrorists as they fled. Russian special-forces stormed the building. Relatives screamed in helpless horror.

When the first bomb blast happened, a piece of schrapnel tore through Karina's left foot. Half blinded by the blast and choking on the dense smoke, she could barely stand.

But she knew she only had a few seconds to get herself and her brother to safety. She somehow managed to reach for her brother's arm and half-carry, half-drag him along in the midst of the chaos as a firefight between the terrorists and the Russian special-forces erupted all around them. She managed to scramble out through a broken window where Russian police ran up and whisked them away.

Survivors and heroes see things the rest of us don't see. They see a purpose bigger than themselves. There were many heroes on 9/11 when two airplanes struck the World Trade Center. There will no doubt be many heroes who come to the aid of the hurricane victims.

When Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, one of the first things he did was start the Lance Armstrong Foundation to raise money for cancer research. When we focus on a purpose bigger than ourselves, somehow our own suffer seems less tragic.

When we help other people weather their strorms, something unexplainable happens in the cosmos. Electricity starts to flow, we feel more energized, brain cells get more creative, people unite, hearts swell-and sometimes, just every now and then, miracles happen.

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September 13, 2005
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