Hurricane Sandy: Devastation and Strength in Families and Communities

The recent hurricane hit numerous families living in shore communities of New Jersey and New York with devastating power. Many clients of Princeton Family Institute work and live in communities that were directly affected. Countless people participated in the efforts to assist neighbors who lost their homes or needed basic supplies for their daily lives, such as food, clothing, heat, electricity or medications.

One of the ways we create meaning out of the experience of a widespread catastrophe such as Hurricane Sandy is to learn from it and to reshape our lives as individuals, families, and communities. Here are some thoughts that came to my mind.

  1. Hurricane Sandy reminded us of the profound vulnerability of our physical and social environment. Many of us were exposed to the destructive power of a hurricane that threatened to annihilate the physical base of our existence, such as shelter, food, heat, the technical means of communication with each other, and accustomed ways of transportation.
  2. The response to the devastation by neighbors and strangers, within local communities, from emergency personnel to state and federal institutions has shown us how deeply interdependent we are as society, how fragile the ecological context can become, and how much we all rely daily on a nurturing and socially just environment around us and our families. The myth of the self-reliant, self-sufficient, and independent individual (the US “frontier narrative” that became part of the ideology of the entire nation) is just that, a myth, and is blind to the fact that we all are part of multiple and complex contexts without which we could not live or thrive.
  3. In the public media the hurricane was presented as just another natural disaster that we had to endure and against which we have to protect ourselves by more effective preventive measures. The scientific consensus tells us otherwise: At least the strength of this hurricane had to do with the man made deterioration of our planetary environment. Unfortunately, most nations and governments participate in the widespread denial of the escalating and soon irreversible warming of the earth’s climate. Our very survival as a human species is at stake.

Why do these reflections matter to us, i.e. the individuals, couples, families and psychotherapists of Princeton Family Institute?

Well, the philosophy of PFI is based on very similar insights that are crucial for the flourishing of couples, families, and individuals and for the survival of our communities – now and in the future. Psychotherapy as practiced at Princeton Family Institute is rooted in a set of basic assumptions about our life as interdependent people that were powerfully demonstrated by the experience of Hurricane Sandy.

We see the individual as an integral part of larger complex and interwoven physical and social “eco-systems”, i.e. of a couples relationship, of a family, of institutional systems such as a school or a corporation, of an interpersonal social network, of a culture, of a local community, of the general society, up to and including humankind as integral part of the planet Earth. As individuals in complex relationships and multi-level contexts, we are profoundly vulnerable to our natural and social environment. And, equally, we constantly recreate and influence profoundly these relationships and contexts, from the way a family system adapts to new challenges to whether or not we participate in the denial of the science underlying climate change.

Whatever troubles (and often traumatizes) the people who seek assistance from the therapists who form PFI has a lot to do with a “hurricane” of stress factors located in their human and, often, physical environment. Just as the hurricane traumatized people, so can economic pressures or the loss of a home or job lead to all-encompassing fear and anxiety. Some of us have experienced violence or have been victims of racist aggressions, institutional injustice, or daily lack of respect. The experience of the breakdown of intimacy with one’s partner may foster an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and depression. Families can get stuck in intergenerational conflicts that may make daily life for some members all but intolerable. Traumatic experiences in the past may be revived by mistreatment in the present and may lead to relational isolation and paranoid thinking.

And here is the hopeful aspect of this relationship centered view: Just as it happened during and after the recent hurricane, working in psychotherapy clients and professionals can discover tremendous and often surprising strengths in the relational networks surrounding children, adolescents, and adults.

  • Couples and families unearth their own resources and hidden assets and create their own solutions to often long standing problems.
  • Couples locate issues and experiences that threaten their intimacy not any longer in the personality of the other, but rather in their relational process.
  • Parents begin to collaborate with each other to guide the psychological and emotional development of their children and discover alternative ways of responding to troubled or traumatized teenagers.
  • Children and adolescents do not have to be the only ones who bear the burden of change: Parents and other adults in the family work together to transform the intergenerational patterns of the family’s relational process.
  • Even in cases of family members diagnosed with “mental illness”, parents or other adults in the family and in the friendship network of the family learn how deeply they affect each other and how they can become part of the healing process supporting the person they care about.

Psychotherapy at Princeton Family Institute aims at assisting people to improve and heal their couple and family relationships, to remove potentially destructive stress factors in their physical and emotional environment, and to strengthen the natural and social resources of individuals, couples, and families.

Norbert A. Wetzel November 2012

families, couples, communities, stress, strengths