The subtle art of being patient

Hi, my name is Kate Brady and John has been kind enough to let me write a guest post for his blog. I am the National Recovery Adviser for the Australian Red Cross and recently completed my PhD looking at what people who have been affected by disasters think is most helpful when recovering. I work closely with John at Red Cross, we look at the two sides to the same coin of disasters – his side is (mostly) before disasters and my side is (mostly) after disasters. I will definitely not have as many sporting analogies for you as he would in this post.

I’ve been learning an uncomfortable lesson over the last few weeks that I should know better than to have to contend with, and that is the art of being patient in disasters.

I am writing this to you from maternity leave, where I have 5 month old twins and a four year old who is the no-mans land between day care winding up and pre-school starting. Unlike most disasters over the last ten years, I am not following this one through sit reps, briefings and coordination meetings, I’m watching it unfold over my phone and the TV between episodes of Sesame Street and Bluey while I feed babies and make cheese sandwiches on what feels like continuous rotation.

I am doing exactly what I would normally advise people not to do – I am over exposing myself to the media coverage, indulging in unhelpful social media commentary and watching video footage that just makes me feel worse.

I am outraged and itching to help out and be involved.

No one likes to wait for anything they think is important. But disaster recovery management, when done well, requires patience. Unlike the initial response to disasters which generally starts with a bang of some description and escalates quickly before petering off, both the lived experience of recovery and the management of recovery processes are slow and build over time in what feels like a haphazard, lumpy fashion.

Recovery from disasters has been described as a gruelling marathon and as a beast with a long scorpion like tail. It has a cadence ebbs and flows, there is very little that is straightforward. It takes far far longer than most people ever imagine. A good friend of mine who has experienced a major disaster once described it as being like being forced to compete in a pentathlon in the Hunger Games that you never trained for.

Recovery is complex, messy, frustrating and exhausting.

I’m like everyone else watching this unfold from the outside. I want to help now. I want it to all be fixed now. Even though I know that’s not possible.

That itch and urgency is the reason so many people feel compelled to help so generously, so ferociously. But as John has previously written, the itch to help is rarely quelled by donating money or blood. We want to do more. Now. To make things better. Quickly.

The itch is adrenaline. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal, threatening set of events. And adrenaline loves action. Adrenaline hates being forced to wait. Adrenaline bursts out of us in angry discharges if we are told to just hold off for a little while.

But that’s what we need to do if we want to help in the best, most effective ways possible.

If I were John I’d have a cracker of a sporting analogy here for you, but I’m terrible at that stuff so bear with me, the only sport I understand is baseball. Basically we’re in the first innings of these disasters and there’s at least 8 more to go. After the flames are gone, the evacuation warnings have hushed and the roads have reopened, the recovery from these fires will take many, many years. This won’t just be a gruelling few months for those affected. It will be a gruelling decade.

I’m absolutely not saying that we shouldn’t help now. Of course we should, and I again refer you to John’s earlier piece about how to do that.

Over the next few weeks we will start to see increasingly angry and frustrated media coverage of these events. The feeling that everyone has pulled together will give way to frustration, anger, rage and then despair. Nasty things will be said. In some matters, there will be intense complaints of bureaucracy, and where there is little regulation there will be screams for more intervention. Some people will feel like they have been abandoned, while others will feel overwhelmed by people doing things to them. Some of these frustrations will be very warranted, and some of this will be a normal discharge of anger and helplessness and pain. As I said above, recovery is complex, messy, frustrating and exhausting.

The next thing we will see is headlines about how long the rebuilding is taking, and there will be many an armchair philosopher who will explain in patronising detail how long it should take to rebuild a house. This will usually be followed by some spectacularly unhelpful commentary about how people should be ‘over it’ by now.

But disasters aren’t just about losing houses. And recovery isn’t just about rebuilding them as quick as we can.

Disasters affect people at an individual, family, community and societal level. They affect our health, relationships, housing, livelihoods, belief systems, economies and environments. They challenge the very foundations of how we understand the world to work and call into question many of the things that we previously considered to be unquestionably true.

I have met people after disaster who, years later, are still grappling with the concept that they couldn’t keep their children safe which they had always assumed. Or that their relationship with their partner changed in ways they had never thought about before. Or that they weren’t as brave as they thought they’d be in the face of a disaster. Or that they don’t think they believe in their God anymore. Or that they no longer trust the earth they walk on or the sky overhead. Or they rebuilt as fast as they could but now can’t figure out why they don’t want to go home. Or they’re not sure what the point of anything is anymore. Or that they now understand the point and their previous life is incompatible with this new understanding.

None of these things will be fixed by rebuilding houses as quickly as possible.

It takes a long time to figure out what these impacts mean and what you want to do about them if you have been through a disaster. And everyone will go through it at a different pace. Couples, families, friends and communities will all work their way through at a different pace to each other. For some people it will take a long time to decide if they want to stay living in their communities. All of it will be complex, messy, frustrating and exhausting.

One of the things people tell me years after disasters is that they wish they’d pushed back harder for more time to make decisions for themselves and for their communities.

So let’s not make people push. Let’s walk along with them, let them take their time to figure out what they need, offering support to meet the needs they identify as they unfold, knowing these might change as time goes on. The reason we need patience is that the best help meets a need, and the best recovery is community led.
One of the interesting things about disaster relief is that almost all the help from the general public is offered in the first few weeks. And then… almost nothing. At Red Cross, we have people beating down our doors to volunteer in the first days, untrained but adrenaline fuelled. It’s really hard for us to find people who want to volunteer at the two year, five year point and beyond.

Same with offers of goods and services. We have people baying for blood about spending appeal money in the first few weeks but no one yelling at us to hold some back and make sure it meets the long term needs, even though that’s what lived experience and research tells us is needed. A lot of people get intensely frustrated if a charity can’t tell them exactly what the money will be spent on in the first week. In my experience, you should 100% demand accountability from charities, but be wary of those who know exactly what they’ll be doing well before those affected have had a chance to gather their thoughts. It means they’re not doing needs assessments and aren’t taking a community led approach.

This is not about us, those of us itching in our adrenaline fuelled states who want action, who want everything fixed right now. It’s about those affected who need help now, but also need time and the security of knowing that support will be there over the long term as their needs evolve and change.

So. While I’d love to help more now, to scratch my itch, the people affected by these disasters deserve more than someone who has had an average of 4.5 hours broken sleep a night for 5 months who can’t be away from hungry babies for more than a few hours. And they deserve people who can come in fresh to help in a few months time when everyone who is working now is exhausted.

And that’s where I’ll be. Somewhere further down the batting order than I usually am but ready to come in to keep the help coming as the interest dies out but the long term needs increase.

And you can join me. There’s loads you can do.

Think about the stuff you’ve felt compelled to do over the last few weeks, and consider what you can keep doing. Keep donating blood, donating money and doing fundraisers if you can.

If you know someone affected, ask how they are and what they need. And keep asking. Regularly. For years. Don’t ever say ‘aren’t you over that now?’

Don’t be the person who writes into newspapers and social media comments sections about how everything is taking too long and that everything should be fixed by now. Be the person who writes into newspapers and social media comments sections about how recovery is a long, gruelling, complex process that deserves our long-term support.

Have a think about where your skills and talents are best placed, and sign up to volunteer, either to help in the longer-term recovery or for the next disaster.

Set an annual calendar reminder to think about donating time, money, goods or services down the line when individuals and communities know what they need help with.

Support local economic recovery. Book a holiday for a years time. Or two. Or three. Make it an annual trip if you can. Take friends. Go with empty eskies and cars that need to be filled at local petrol stations. Eat in the cafes, restaurants and pubs and stay in the accommodation and even do your grocery shopping before you come home in the local supermarket.

If you are in a position to do so at work, organise team away days or conferences in affected communities and let them enjoy the influx of business it brings.

General interest and media coverage will get angry and then drop off. But you don’t need to. Recovery is complex, messy, frustrating and exhausting but there is lots that can be done if we can be patient to help those affected in the long-term.

PS – A note on language: I have started swearing every time I see the words ‘fire victims’ written. I don’t have space to rage about that here, so here’s something I wrote a few years ago about the language we use to describe those affected by disasters.

2 thoughts on “The subtle art of being patient

  1. Thanks Kate for this. We do tend to forget that after the outpourings of initial grief, donations, assistance etc that it takes time and support, in a multitude of ways, to achieve the ‘new’ normal and that some may never be able to accept what has occurred.


  2. Lovely to read Kate, hastening slowly is an art form that requires practice. In my sphere of child and youth, availability, watchful waiting, travelling with the emergent concerns all take the patience of other core business, like making cheese sandwiches, feeding babies, predictable, necessary, routines that give us comfort.


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