I don’t like how good I am at packing a go-bag. Give me five minutes for assembly and I kit-out a rucksack to survive for five days. Give me a few more minutes and I can live out of it for weeks.
Hurricane Sandy was one such test. I could have survived for a week with just what I threw together in ten minutes in my storage unit before I beat-feet over to New York City’s Emergency Command Center the day before landfall. Ditto South Sudan a few weeks before Sandy. Thursday was the same old song and dance as I packed to head to the Philippines in support of continuing relief for Typhoon Haiyan.
I don’t like how good I am at packing a go-bag because it’s a tangible reminder of my subconscious desire to leave quick. For a good deal of my childhood I was obsessed with the idea of survival, of being entirely self-reliant, requiring nothing of anyone and able to scrounge and get by. Reading books like The Tracker, studying military survival guides, and planning for every contingency, I fell into the trap of mistaking survival for living. Both imply continued existence, breathing in and breathing out, putting one foot in front of the other. What differentiates the two is motive: survival is simply content with existence. Living demands aspiration.
I had hoped that the Army might blow out experience at each pole, widening my ability to understand by making the lows lower and the highs higher. More texture, more detail, more richness in living. That it did, but the baseline didn’t move. I guess didn’t expect it to, but I also didn’t expect to come away with a hatred of the baseline’s tyranny, something I couldn’t escape earlier this week on Veteran’s Day. I struggled to express just why that was the case until a line from WWI-poet Siegfried Sassoon gave me a fitting phrase. (The title, “Suicide in the Trenches”, is a hint that this isn’t exactly light fare.)You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye Who cheer when soldier lads march by, Sneak home and pray you’ll never know The hell where youth and laughter go.
Last year on Veterans Day, while other veterans marched in a parade cheered on by ‘smug-faced crowds with kindling eye’, my fellow volunteers with Team Rubicon eschewed pats on the back for the dirt and sweat of service. We shoveled out hurricane-flooded homes in the Rockaways, shored up damaged foundations, and helped restore a sense of normalcy to a population shaken by nature’s wrath.
This year on Veterans Day, while other veterans marched in a parade cheered on by ‘smug-faced crowds with kindling eye’, Team Rubicon landed in the Philippines as one of the first humanitarian aid organizations on the ground there. They immediately fell in on massive need, assisting surgeons with over a hundred amputations, several emergency C-sections, and every manner of medical emergency to a population in desperate need of a lifeline. Normalcy is a long way off, but recovery is possible and beginning.
You can shake hands and feel the slap a bumper-sticker on your back or you can search on and keep up the existence that earned those accolades in the first place. What I felt during Hurricane Sandy with Team Rubicon, surrounded by friends who just wanted to do, was hard to place. For a while this too I struggled to express.
Pride, while close, certainly wasn’t the word. Pride has come to mean something worn on a sleeve, or a social media note, or shouted in defense of insecurity. Pride is the last redoubt to those who have little else.
What I felt was more akin to purpose, and a sublime one at that. The sense that you are exactly where you need to be doing exactly what you need to be doing. Sitting here tonight in the Team Rubicon offices in Los Angeles, prepping teams to deploy to the Philippines and training the crew I will lead into the field this weekend, that same sense washed over me.
The buzz of a humming operations center, where everyone is making it up as they go but know enough to get it right, is a beautiful thing. For an organization that is not yet four years old, where every disaster is a mini-reunion of old friends forged-quick, the air is nothing short of amazing. And without it, without the camaraderie and purpose and sense of the sublime, we would’t be able to endure what we need to in order to bring relief in trying circumstances.