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A letter from Paul Matheny and Mary Neblesick in the Philippines

December 2013

Imagining what it is like to experience trauma is difficult if you have not been held in its grips.  Faced with something that you are not prepared to live with, you are shocked to the point of numbness and your mind becomes empty.  You lose the capacity to feel and relate to the world around you.  You never really get over it.  Once the initial shock is over, anything that reminds you of the trauma can trigger a feeling of overwhelming anxiety.  Soldiers who experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder know what I mean.  The moment of trauma sets off waves in your memory that strike you when you are not expecting it. Your dreams become nightmares and your days become dreams.  When someone has experienced trauma, they need help.  Telling them to be strong is harmful.  They need someone to listen to them retell their story.  If possible they should be moved to a safe place, secure from threat.  They need to know that they are accepted in spite of what happened to them.  A community that cares and listens without judgment can make the difference that allows them to go on with their lives and begin to recover. 

After the typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit Leyte many of its 10 million inhabitants indicated signs of trauma.  Those who have been in Tacloban after the event will tell you that many of the survivors spend their days just staring, spending hours motionless, speechless.  Their homes, families and town are gone.  Their lives are in ruins.  They faced death and live among the dead.  Ninety percent of the buildings of Tacloban, for example, were washed away, as were thousands of its inhabitants. 

When our UCCP conferences organized teams to go to Leyte to help, we decided to send relief medical workers and pastoral therapists.  People trained to listen, who spoke their language and could provide companionship.  Even the professionals, who have been working there, need to have someone to listen to them.  It is too much.  What is needed is compassion and empathy alongside the food, medicine and materials that will make survival possible.

The rationalizations that prevented early deployment of help were painful for the villagers.  Fear and anxiety were thick in the air.  The need for compassion was urgent.  Fortunately help from people around the world arrived.  It has arrived just in time and in abundance.  The need for compassion and justice is rarely talked about, but it has not been forgotten.  It is easier to speak just of food and aid packages.  Yet survival means love in all its forms.

We should not forget them.  Christianity is one of the few religions that teaches that the love for our neighbor extends to all people.  It is not racially or ethnically limited.  We are not to love and care only about the lives of those we know and are like us.  Our circle of sympathy and care is universal.  Through the grace of Jesus Christ, God extended his love to all.  We cannot allow our memories to go dry and forgetful of those who need our love to survive. 

The Scottish economist Adam Smith, best known for his theory of capitalism, was also an ethicist.  His work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, was famous in his day, but it is read infrequently today.  This is unfortunate, because it resonates with compassion for the suffering and marginalized.  An example he uses to develop his argument is helpful for us.  Smith asked his readers to imagine their reaction to a tragedy like that dealt by the typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).  Our reaction, he believed, would be something like this.  We would feel empathy for a while, pitying the victims.  If we reflect at all on the issue we are likely to remind ourselves of the vulnerability of life.  How sad it was for them.  Perhaps we might support a project to send them aid.  And then we would get back to life as usual, as if nothing had happened.  But if something happened to us, such as an accident, we would be greatly upset.  The personal loss would matter much more.  We would not be able to get our misfortune out of our minds.  The story, however, does not end here.  A deeper morality is possible for us.  Consider if this same person were facing a different scenario.  What if you were given a choice, say, of losing your finger or millions would be killed.  Would you not sacrifice your finger?  Smith predicts that almost no one would choose the horrific option and allow millions to die.  Why not?  Even though the personal is so much more distressful than empathy for strangers, few would be so monstrous.  What is it that saves us?  It is our conscience.  Smith writes of our capacity to think morally, or moral conscience. 

“It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of other, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. . . .  It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves” (Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Penguin Books, 1759/2009, p.159).

Please do not forget us this season.  We are with those who are recovering in Leyte and we will be with them for a while.  Keep us in your thoughts and prayers.  There is a resettlement camp that is being built near us.  We will be ready to listen and care for those who come.  Remember us.  Support us in your heart.

Thank you so much for the support you have already shown us.  We will be coming to the U.S. for our interpretation assignment in June.  Keep us in mind.  We would love to visit you and tell you our stories.

In Christ,
Paul Matheny and Mary Nebelsick

The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 238
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