What we must learn from this storm

Both the storm caused by Mother Nature and the manmade electoral storm have passed, but we're still getting reports of Hurricane Sandy's devastation. According to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, up to 40,000 New Yorkers may be in need of new housing. Gas lines are still blocks long in parts of New York and New Jersey. And the death toll has reached 110.

And with the election over, this is a good moment to ask some big questions. That's what I've found myself doing over nearly a week of living by candlelight once the sun set -- largely, and involuntarily, disconnected from the day-to-day minutiae that I would have ordinarily considered important. It's amazing how quickly one's priorities get completely reordered. Not having much ability to connect with my outer world, I decided to embrace the moment and connect with my inner one.

The first and most obvious big question I asked myself: Why is it so difficult for us to look around the corner and prevent upcoming disasters, or at least mitigate their impact? Especially in cases in which, while we might not know exactly what form it will take, we have a pretty good idea of what we need to do to protect ourselves. "In Sandy's wake must be a wake-up call," writes Rep. Ed Markey. "Climate change is no longer some far off issue. It's at our doorstep right now. We must consider how to address the underlying factors that are fueling these extreme weather events." New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was even more blunt: "Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality."

We know what's happening. We know it will keep happening, and we know it's going to get worse. At the same time, even without the battering by superstorms like Sandy, our infrastructure is crumbling. And now the need to fix it is all the more urgent.

This, of course, is where leadership comes in. The job of a leader is to look around the corner, see what's coming and create consensus around the need to confront the looming crisis before the iceberg -- or supercharged hurricane -- hits. Polls taken before 9/11 showed that people weren't that concerned about terrorism. But it would have helped if our leaders had been.

And yet a seemingly endless election season has ended and climate change was barely raised. Though there are clearly differences between the two parties on the issue, neither has been particularly eager to articulate them. "Climate change is to the Republican base what leprosy once was to healthy humans -- untouchable and unmentionable," writes Timothy Egan. "Their party is financed by people whose fortunes are dependent upon denying that humans have caused the earth's weather patterns to change for the worse." But as Egan points out, there hasn't been a lot of leadership on the other side either: "President Obama has been silent on this issue of great import to his children, Sasha and Malia, and their children. He is afraid of those pockets of coal-mining, climate-change-denying voters in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio."

One of the best ways to shore up our inner lives and build our spiritual resilience is by reaching out to help others. Which is why, as Lisa Miller points out, religious groups often play a unique role in disaster relief: "The government and religious groups can -- and should -- work together in a disaster. A religious response is not a weak or sentimental response. In the first 72 hours after a catastrophe, churches, synagogues and mosques have information that the government does not. They know where their members live. They know who's a shut-in, who's elderly, who's disabled. They know exactly whose house has burned down and how many children, and pets, usually live there. They can rally a community, as mine has, to put boots on the ground, feeding people and helping the government understand the scope of the problem."

Tragedies like Sandy present an opportunity for us to take stock of where we are. As with most disasters, this one has brought out both the best and worst in people -- but mostly the best. Yes, there have been isolated instances of looting and petty crime, but there has also been an outpouring of desire to help and strengthen our bonds of connection.

This raises another big question: Why does it take a disaster to bring out the best in us? After all, we know that there are people desperately in need all the time, in every community, in every state. We know that there are 46 million people living in poverty right now. So why can't we sustain that best-self spirit even after these storm-battered communities get back on their feet?

In very real ways, the need to take care of our planet, and our need to take care of our spiritual selves by reaching out to care for others, is all of a piece.

"We need full cooperation based on a clear realization that we are all one," said the Dalai Lama. "Each and every individual's future depends on the entire humanity, especially right now."

And in an address in 1990 he laid out the mechanism for that cooperation: "The human being is a social animal," he said. "If you have religion, very good; even without religion you can survive and you can manage, but without human affection we can't survive."

(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is arianna@huffingtonpost.com.)

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