Let's make this one fact clear - I am a coward.
When I was in Japan this summer, I wanted so badly to visit an area affected by the tsunami. I settled on Ishinomaki - mostly because it was the furthest place I could reach via train. However, once I found out that it had not only lost a lot of its community but an entire elementary school in the tsunami, I lost my courage. All those suffering families with their children gone in an instant - it broke my heart. The last thing I wanted to do was to go and have those victims think that some foreigner was there to gawk at their pain. I still wanted to go - I wanted to feel and to mourn and to help those who were hurting. But since I felt that I would only be seen as an outsider, I didn't dare.
Last week, in church, our bishop got up and announced that the stake was trying to organize a trip up to the Hurricane Sandy disaster area to help with clean up. My stomach got really tight - I realized that while I wanted to go, I was also absolutely terrified to go. All during church, I thought about that opportunity and whether or not I should take it. I'm young and strong. I can work hard. I have no dependents. I told my bishop I could conditionally go. And then the pieces started to come together and I told my bishop a few days later that I could definitely go. Even as I made plans and packed and prepared, I couldn't let go of the feeling that I was absolutely terrified. The last thing I wanted to do was to inflict pain on the victims - to have them think that I was there to gawk at their pain or that I was condescendingly offering my services. However, I kept thinking of Ishinomaki and that lost opportunity - how much I wished I could have helped. Here was a real chance to help my own people, my countrymen and also a way of hopefully making up for my cowardice in Japan. Right?
I learned a few things about courage this weekend.
(1) Courage is not some big thing. It's the culmination of a million little things.
(2) Every person I met this weekend was an example to me of great courage.
Every location that my team and I helped this weekend were individuals who were seeking for help on behalf of someone else. I have no idea about the state of their own homes but there they were, working alongside us through the long hours with a zeal and energy that surpassed even our own. They were optimistic and kind and took the time to tell each of us a little of why they were involved and why they cared about the person they were helping. It was quite inspiring.
In fact, generally, everyone we met kept an eye out for each other. Some homes we stopped by, no one was at home but their neighbors would show up next to us to help us get a hold of the owners by cell phone or to explain which of their neighbors had returned and which ones hadn't, which ones were in need of help and which ones had already been taken care of.
People driving by in their cars would yell out at us, "God bless you," even though we had never helped them. Even the stake president from the church building we were staying in attended our quick sacrament service to tell us, "I don't even know if you are serving in our stake boundaries and frankly, it doesn't matter, but thank you, thank you for the service you are giving to our people." This from the man who opened his church to us, this from the man who helped clean up after we left in preparation for his own Sunday services, this from the man whose stake members filled us with leftover lentil stew and french bread. Even the people who helped organize our services were locals themselves who gave up their weekends to tell us where to go and stay in contact with us as we worked and traveled from house to house. I never found out their own situations but I can't help but think they were affected as well.
(3) It doesn't just take courage to survive hard times - it also takes kindness, cheerfulness and mostly, love.
I think I always thought that it would take a lot of bravery to survive and deal with the aftermath of a disaster like this. But I learned something entirely different from the people that I met. It does take bravery but our acts of courage come in the form of something with less bravado and more compassion. The kindnesses that I saw among everyone I met helped to lift the weight and burden of the aftermath. It was overwhelming at times to think about - almost crushing. However, all of these little things helped to infuse sparks of hope into the situation.
Their road ahead is not going to be easy. It will continue to take a lot of courage to face all the tasks of putting a house and a life back in order.
I think Mormon was right when he said, "perfect love casteth out all fear." Let's not forget to show each other love and to learn better to love. There is nothing that helps us to gain courage so much as that.