79: Hope Is a Choice

79: Hope Is a Choice

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Hope Is a Choice

The road that is built in hope is more pleasant to the traveler than the road built in despair, even though they both lead to the same destination.

~Marian Zimmer Bradley

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating tragedies in American history. When Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast and ravaged the city of New Orleans in August of 2005, I was working for HUD in Oklahoma City. One day, our quiet office housed a team of twelve foreclosure specialists. The next week, our staff grew to more than three hundred Katrina Disaster Relief reps. Our job: assist affected homeowners with mortgage issues and aid those on rental assistance with relocation efforts.

At the time Katrina hit, I had my own personal issues. The demands of taking care of my aging father as well as my son who was having trouble in school were wearing me thin. Coupled with the overtime that the disaster required, I left the office most days emotionally drained. How could I help others when I was struggling myself?

Since our hotline was given prominent media exposure, we handled thousands of calls per day, many of which had nothing to do with housing needs. Evacuees had limited contact with the outside world since their cell phones had died and their laptops had floated away. Sitting for days in crowded makeshift shelters miles from home, they waited and waited—just for a chance to use the phone. Our phone lines never quit ringing.

I spoke with countless victims who were desperately trying to locate family members lost in the flood. They all needed assistance with housing, food and clothing. The monumental task of rebuilding or relocating was overwhelming. I listened to story after story of horrid details: families who lost every piece of furniture, every article of clothing, every picture ever taken. Cherished mementos and every remnant of their past—gone forever.

Very few had jobs to which they could return, so paychecks quit coming and money ran out. Devastation set like concrete. It took weeks before any federal assistance was available to the majority. Some received none.

At times, I would just wipe my eyes and say, “I’m so sorry.” That was it. What else could I say? They knew I hadn’t suffered like they had. They knew I was in a dry office building somewhere in Oklahoma City. I still had my home... my job... my family. Bottom line—my life hadn’t been ransacked like theirs had. Many days I wondered how I could think my issues were relevant considering what they faced.

Even though we were there to help, the trauma made some callers demanding, rude or belligerent. Some were impatient and hysterical. Some were suicidal. Normally, I was sympathetic and enjoyed helping others, but with all the negativity, it was hard to stay positive and encouraging. Just when I thought I had heard it all, I got a call from Brenda.

Brenda was a single woman in her early fifties with no children. She was all alone and had been living in a crowded shelter in Houston for the past month. Due to the number of hurricane victims who had been evacuated to Houston, there was no way to know how much longer it would be before temporary housing was available. When I asked her how she was coping, this is what she said to me:

“I’ve heard that my house is still underwater and at this point, I have no idea if rebuilding is even a possibility. The hardest part of all of this, though, is seeing the elderly suffer. The young have longer to recover, but many of the elderly have no other resources.”

I swallowed hard. How would I react? Brenda was hit hard but her heart still overflowed with compassion for others.

“I know that recovery lies ahead,” she continued. “I believe that if we were the ones chosen to endure this hardship, then God will give us the grace to endure. The destruction of our city has given birth to a spirit of unity.”

I was speechless. For the past several weeks, I had been the one trying to offer encouragement.

“My hope isn’t based on my circumstances,” she continued. “My hope is based on my decision to hope. Hope is a choice.”

Wow, I thought. What am I doing here? She should be the one that callers speak to. Never had I heard such unrelenting faith in the midst of loss. Brenda had stored trust and confidence in her spiritual pantry for a rainy day. And what a rainy day it was—no pun intended.

Moments later, we finished our conversation and I logged information on my screen about our call. As I reviewed the data I had just entered, I noticed a typo. When I hit the backspace key to correct my error, the realization hit me: Brenda couldn’t edit her past. Her tragedy was impossible to revise. There was no delete button, no escape key to press. The only thing Brenda could change was her attitude. She had been involuntarily transplanted, but she made a decision to thrive, not just survive.

As I finished logging information about our call, I closed the file and marveled at Brenda’s choice—the choice to focus on her future beyond the storm.

I still had my home. I still had my family. So that day, sitting in my office staring at my computer screen, I shifted my focus. If Brenda could endure such a tragedy and resolve to maintain hope, I could too. I’ve never faced calamity like Brenda had faced, but if I ever do, I hope I react with a fraction of her confidence and faith. So thank you, Brenda from New Orleans. Thank you for showing me how to maintain hope—even in the face of adversity.

~Christy Johnson

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