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Lessons learned in the Philippines: Gratitude and action

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Deseret News journalist Jesse Hyde and photojournalist Ravell Call spent 10 days in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. As 2013 draws to a close, Jesse reflects on his experience.

Night had fallen over Tacloban, bringing with it the eery silence of a hollowed-out city. With an 8 p.m. curfew, and mangled power lines still down, the city of 250,000 was almost entirely without light. Other than a few fires burning garbage, and the stars above me, I was enveloped by a quiet, unsettling darkness.

Most residents had fled; thousands had died in the most powerful storm to ever pass through the Philippines. I had come here to see the destruction.

In the daylight, I had seen the power of the typhoon. It had pulverized palm trees, chopping them off at the knees, and picked up cars, tractor trailers and boats, spun them around, and then deposited them--crumpled and battered-- in places they didn't belong. The air smelt of upturned earth, and sometimes, of death. The chaos and lawlessness after the storm still lingered in the streets.

But now, in a quiet moment to myself, my thoughts turned to home. Thanksgiving was in a few days, and I was thousands of miles away from my family. I imagined my third-grader coming home from school, telling his mom what he’d learned that day. I pictured my baby girl, who had turned 1 year old the day before, carefully taking her first steps, something my wife had recounted on the phone. I imagined what it would be like to lose them both, a thought I wouldn’t allow myself to entertain for long.

For three days, I had seen loss few will ever experience. I had seen hand painted signs on scraps of wood, listing the names of missing loved ones. I had talked to the survivors, who felt lucky to be alive, and yet overwhelmed at the task of rebuilding their lives.

I had witnessed crises before—Ethiopia in the midst of famine, Haiti after earthquake—and I had seen that while disaster can bring out the worst in people, it can also bring out the best. I was seeing the same thing in the Philippines.

At a chapel in Tacloban, one of the cities hit hardest by the storm, I met a doctor who had flown in from Manila to help those injured by the typhoon, with $5,000 in vaccines he had paid for himself. At another chapel in a city called Ormoc, I met a group of returned missionaries from Utah who had dropped everything when they heard about the storm to help in some small way. And then there were the survivors themselves, packing sacks of rice for the hungry, helping neighbors repair their homes, losing themselves in the service of others.

Crises, I have learned, reorder priorities. In the hand-painted signs I had seen that day, and in the faces of children playing among the wreckage, I was reminded again and again of what one of the survivors told me, “Family matters most.” And yet so many—literally thousands—had lost the ones that matter most.

As I walked toward the storm-battered home where I would sleep that night, thinking of my children, I stopped in a chapel where dozens of families had sought refuge. In a classroom typically used for Sunday School lessons, a family was gathering for dinner, their faces illuminated by candlelight. Another family readied for bed in a classroom down the hall, laying thin mats on the hard tile floor for their young children. They were the lucky ones, I thought. They survived. Their families were in tact.

And yet, luck is a relative term. In the house where I would sleep, the windows were shattered and the curtains stained with mud, but the generator was humming loudly, a luxury the refugees didn’t have. While they would sleep fitfully through the hot and humid night, two electric fans would blow cool air through my room. While they had lost everything, I would eventually go home to hot showers and a king size bed.

I couldn’t help but feel guilty at the unfairness of it all. I had advantages I often took for granted--where I was born, my gender, even the color of my skin. I knew I’d probably forget all this, and sooner or later, complain about the things I didn’t have, but felt I deserved.

On one of the last days I was in the Philippines I told a man who had become my friend how impressed I was by the strength of the Filipino people. “So many have lost so much, and yet they all seem to be smiling,” I said. “I can’t imagine that reaction in the United States.” He nodded, but then he said: “They may be smiling, but they’re hurting inside. They have the same hopes and dreams you do. They want the same things you want.” It’s a lesson I’d learned before, in Africa and Guatemala and Haiti: deep down, despite our differences, we have more in common than we realize. And at a basic level, we all want the same things.

A few days later, on a plane heading home, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for what I’d been given. In a few days I’d be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner with my children. I knew I couldn’t explain to them why the typhoon had taken some out to sea, never to return, and why others had survived. Nor could I explain why we were lucky enough to have a warm house, hot meals and something as simple as snow pants for sledding and skiing. But we were lucky, that I could tell them without question.

I’ve traveled enough to know that it’s human nature to forget what we’ve seen, and that it’s easy to slip back in to complaining about the things we don’t have. But I try to remember the things I saw in the Philippines—the names of the lost on planks of wood, the children playing the wreckage—and how good I’ve got it.

The suffering in the Philippines continues to this day, and before the city of Tacloban is rebuilt, another storm or disaster will grab the headlines and our attention. And yet, we can all help the less fortunate, whether they live in a faraway country we may never visit, or around the block.

This is the greatest lesson I learned in the Philippines, and it came to me as the plane lifted over the Pacific, leaving the wreckage we had just witnessed behind: gratitude is important, but gratitude without action is wasted.

Email: jhyde@deseretnews.com