Our Common Humanity

September 19, 2017
Susanna Schrobsdorff
RAISING US UP Rescue workers help residents escape from rising floodwaters on August 27 after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas.
DAVID J. PHILLIP—AP

Susanna Schrobsdorff is an editor and columnist at TIME. Here, she shares her view of how lessons from Hurricane Harvey could help heal the country.

We’ve all been thinking about how to help Texas after Hurricane Harvey. But after watching the way the people of that state have responded to this tragedy, I think Texas might save the rest of us. We’ve been having a difficult time as a country lately. Then a once-in-a-thousand-year storm hit.

Videos from Texas show scenes of rescue and kindness. They remind us that America brims with compassion, not discrimination.

You heard it in the gentle way that rescuers spoke to the people they were helping. Those responders must have been tired and scared too. But they didn’t rush. They treated every person and even pets as precious.

Everyone’s connected. People who lived through the hurricane are connected to those watching from afar. Even journalists. A news crew filming from a boat was called on to help a couple out of their home. They were tender and careful.

Right now, we feel like one tribe. We feel like a tribe whose members will set out in the dark through filthy waters to save a stranger. But without a crisis, it’s too easy to slip back into our corners. It’s too easy to see people from another state or ethnicity as a threat.

But don’t lose hope. Empathy is hardwired into our species, says Dr. James Doty. He is a neurosurgeon who studies the brain. Doty founded Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. When we take care of one another, the pleasure centers of our brain light up, he explains. “Helping others is not only a benefit to others, but it benefits us in terms of our health and longevity,” he says.

Teach yourself to be compassionate, Doty says. List things you have in common with someone. Maybe you both like the same band or are Chicago Cubs fans. His research indicates that exercises like this help us understand each other.

Rewatch some storm videos when you want to be reminded of our better angels. Over and over, you hear people being reassured as they are supported in the arms of strangers. “We’ve got you . . . I’ve got you . . . You’re okay,” they say. It’s a message all of us need to hear—and deliver—more often.