When friends up north ask me what it was like living in Louisiana during and after Katrina, I tell them the usual: It was horrible. Then I tell them the next thing I remember: That it was wonderful.
They’ve read about the suffering but what they don’t expect to hear is what the storm made clearer than ever for me. Despite everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. These are the last words of Anne Frank’s diary. As a child, tears blurred my eyes while reading them, because this is an inexplicable belief that I have always held. At times, I think it’s made me a laughing stock, especially having grown up among hard core, cynical New Yorkers. Once, I boasted to my father about how amazingly strong and athletic my young sons are. “That’s fabulous,” he said.
I added, “And the best part about them is they both have heart.”
He laughed. “Well, that will be their downfall.”
Sometimes I think people secretly envy me for my belief. I think everyone wants to believe people are good but they just don’t know how; just read the newspaper every day for evidence that people are evil. But evil, I think, is a choice that arises out of years of desperation, whereas goodness is inherent and always buried in there. All you’ve got to do is look for it. And during the worst of times you don’t have to look hard. In the year after Katrina, it was everywhere. For months, every driveway on our block in Baton Rouge overflowed with the cars of camped-out New Orleanians. My dearest friends, most of whom have children, all of whom have demanding careers and packed schedules, managed to squeeze in more good deeds than hours in the day. Claire comforted patients at the field hospital at LSU, stroking arms and hearing stories of escape from dark, hot attics. Andrea started a day care center at the River Center shelter in downtown Baton Rouge. Jacquie baked treats for evacuees and organized the donation of art supplies to evacuee children.
The worst of times often bring out the best in people but I think it’s an important reminder that the best is always in there for the taking. While volunteering at an animal shelter, a FEMA worker asked if I needed help. I smiled and handed her the leash of a dog whose cage I was about to clean. She walked him and as she went to put him back, he bit her. Blood spread out from the petal of disposable rubber glove he had torn from her hand.
“I’m so sorry!” I said, trotting with her to the infirmary. It looked so bad I wanted to faint.
But she was calm. “It’s okay,” she said, as someone cleaned and bandaged her. “They’re animals. They’re scared.”
I went back to check on my charge and move on to the next cage that needed care. I noticed a small sign on the offending dog’s cage, which in my haste, I had overlooked. “THIS DOG BITES.” The FEMA worker was back in five minutes. “I feel horrible,” I said, pointing out the sign. She laughed. Laughed. I was still trembling.
“Who’s next?” she said.
“Are you kidding?” I said.
“Why would I be kidding?” she said.
Anne was right. People are good.
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