Thoughts on Compassion and Selfishness

When reading Philip Gerard’s “What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes” this week, I felt very torn between wanting to respect the writer and being repulsed by what sounded to me to be a pompous tone and lack of compassion. This has been bothering me all week because everyone else in the class seemed to like this piece so much. At first, I thought that it might just be me, that perhaps I was feeling overly sensitive when I read it the first time. However, after re-reading it numerous times and thinking of it in different ways, I still do not see what my classmates seem to have seen with this piece.

While Gerard’s essay gives a matter-of-fact breakdown of the stress of hurricane preparation and the fear of hiding out during a bad storm, I felt that it was marred with feelings of self-importance and a lack of gratitude. The way that he describes the storm plowing over islands as it prepares to make landfall in the U.S. was appalling to me. Unlike Wallace, Gerard was not intending to be ironic when he said “Fran bangs into some islands from the vacation brochures and it’s heading toward the U.S. mainland” (p. 223). To me, the importance that he places on the U.S., his home in Wilmington, NC in particular, shows a profound lack of compassion. By describing the islands that Fran devastated as pictures in a “vacation brochure”, he is dehumanizing those places and placing all of the emphasis on his own concerns. While I understand that he is emphasizing the fact that they had just experienced Bertha in his neighborhood and that he is trying to be honest in his essay, I don’t think that his analysis requires dismissal of the tragedies that occur in a place other than his backyard. I am not sure why it bothers me so much, because I appreciate the fact that he was honest enough to make himself look bad. However, I think my problem is that I just don’t agree with the person that he exposed himself to be through this honesty.

Another example of a remark made by Gerard that I didn’t agree with was the fact that he was disgruntled with the news for moving up the coast with the storm. As we have seen with hurricanes in the past, areas in the Southeast are not the only places that can be devastated by hurricanes. Although I understand that he was upset that the media attention had stopped once things got really hard (living in oppressive heat with no running water or electricity), I feel like he was showing a total lack of consideration for the people who were about to go through the same devastation as he just had and who needed information on the storm. I remember when Hurricane Sandy hit last October and the area was without power for two weeks while a Nor’easter rolled through. We suffered in freezing cold temperatures that we could not escape. Unfortunately, many had it much, much worse in places not far from us. He describes the stories of people who lost everything during Fran, seemingly by random chance. He describes people who tragically lost their lives, but although his family was safe he still remained preoccupied with material losses such as his sunken boat. I felt that this showed a lack of gratitude for the his life and the lives of his loved ones.

I do not typically feel intolerant of people’s attitudes, but I found Gerard’s essay to be so self-centered and lacking depth that it was upsetting. I felt that Foster Wallace’s essay “Shipping Out” commented on this very feeling of entitlement that I felt Gerard was displaying. He touches on the ethnocentrism of American travelers to underdeveloped nations and the lack of empathy that they have for people living in poverty and under unstable governments. I suppose I just feel like Gerard should have felt fortunate that he was living in a country where the government readily provides relief in the event of a disaster, and where the luxuries of electricity and clean water are present in everyday life.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on Compassion and Selfishness

  1. klucenko says:

    Hi Liz: Thank you so much for voicing your thoughts. I am glad you stuck with your gut on this one, and crafted a very thoughtful and detailed critique to the reading. I think you are right to point out in Gerard’s essay a kind of solipsism (which is perhaps a representation of the self experiencing a crisis). That solipsism is perhaps in contrast to the many references to media representation (newspaper headlines predicting the storm, weather reports, videotape of destruction, stories of tragedies). Gerard’s story is wholly his, and maybe it’s this focus on his own experience that’s what is unsettling and ultimately off-putting.

  2. maknouk says:

    Hey Liz. I completely agree with you on your ideas. I think that Gerard was very non compassionate while writing this story. Now that you say it, I see how he did not go into depth at all when there is so much that can be felt by the damage of a storm. I feel like he just superficially explained a storm and just jotted down a bunch of things that happen. Although his descriptions were in great detail, they seemed like a list of them. He should have went into more detail about the effect it left on the people in the town or how it brought the people of the town together or something more in depth.

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