Harvey and Irma: A Harvest of Friends, Family, and Tolerance

We Believed in a Melting Pot

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were tragedies, but if there was a silver lining, it was that they brought out the best in people. They reminded us that humans can overcome partisanship and tribal differences to help one another.

For generations, many of us took pride in thinking of the United States as a melting pot. Our parents and our grandparents came from all parts of the world, and they brought with them a potpourri of languages, cultures, habits, and philosophies. We believed that everyone was welcome and had a contribution to make. After a generation or two, you couldn’t differentiate one group of Americans from any other based on their ancestral origins. That, we believed, was the way it should be.

Fearing People of Different Backgrounds

Then came a series of increasingly divisive elections which peaked during the 2016 presidential campaign. Richard Cohen, who writes a political column for the Washington Post, suggested we learned in November 2016 that there are two kinds of people in this country: the “Fox News types,” and the “MSNBC crowd.” The two groups live in their own distinctive socio-economic bubbles and are unwilling to listen to each others’ point of view.

Unfortunately, the discourse during the 2016 campaign resulted in rancor, a rush to judgment, and even calls to begin a civil war. We feared, and even hated, people whom we didn’t understand. But it didn’t have to be that way.

Cohen recalls a young man he met in the military who, he suggested, represented a sharply different political philosophy than he held. Still, this man became a close friend. He points out that his friend did not own a toothbrush, came from a lower social economic group, and was not on the fast track to get an Ivy League college education. Despite their differences, this man became as close as a brother to him as they served together in the military.

Life on My Family’s Farm

I grew up on a farm in the Midwest where the young man Cohen describes could have been my cousins or high school classmates — or even me. I found Cohen’s description of his military friend condescending yet, somehow, relatable. I, too, didn’t own a toothbrush until I attended high school. It may sound uncouth, but I did not know any better. In fact, I don’t believe my father ever brushed his teeth. Even worse, the juice from the Red Man tobacco that always bathed his teeth would have made brushing of little benefit. As intelligent as we all were, dental care wasn’t a big factor in our lives in that place, at that time.

Indeed, the lack of good oral hygiene did not make a person who he or she was. My father, our extended family members, and other poor farmers always opened up their homes and extended a helping hand to those in need during tough times. If a farmer fell ill and was unable to plant or harvest his own crops, the neighbors would rush to the fields and ensure the farming needs were met. This was a cultural expectation. A community like ours always came together when it was important.

This may sound like an episode of “Little House on the Prairie” (specifically, the very first program of the first season which was called “A Harvest of Friends“). But I assure you that Michael Landon didn’t make up the story; that strong sense of community with concern for friends and neighbors actually existed in our country at one time, and I’d like to believe that it still does.

These farmers could argue like the best of partisans when it came to politics, religion, or what the fall crop prices would be, but they also knew what was truly important. It wasn’t just a matter of being kind; it was also about nature’s symbiotic relationship among living organisms. They knew, intuitively, that acceptance and giving were acts of survival for everyone in the community.

Hurricanes Dissolve Our Differences

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma created a similar primordial response from those who were in the affected areas. Before, during, and after the natural disasters, there weren’t different factions battling for who had the best ideas for survival, who was more entitled to have a place to sleep, whose family members most deserved rescue, or who needed food and water the most. Everyone was of the same tribe.

Cohen wants to recreate this experience for all of us. He suggests that Americans may benefit from being forced to live with people they otherwise might shun or judge harshly. He does not endorse the military draft, but he suggests that compulsory humanitarian service for a year or two may bridge some of the differences between us. This idea is worthy of consideration.

The act of helping others in times of extreme difficulty or natural disasters demonstrates humans’ capacity to care about others. But it shouldn’t take tragedies for human beings to put aside their differences and accept people from different backgrounds. We should celebrate the melting pot that is our country, and be in touch with our humanity, at all times.

Sharing Promotes Tolerance

It seems that many of us have forgotten that we have more commonalities than differences. Between the battle lines of Fox News and MSNBC is the shared need for food, shelter, respect, and love. We seek pleasure. We avoid pain. We desire health and happiness.

We can get along if we focus on all that we have in common. It should be comforting to know that, when the chips are down, most people will be kind, honorable, and decent. It shouldn’t take disasters to remind us of that.


Photo by Oliver Pacas  on Unsplash


  1. holly webster on September 23, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    As a pediatric health care provider, I learned in studying developmental milestones that the mark of an adolescent is that he is focused on finding differences between himself and others, especially parents. However, adolescents can also be cruel in their treatment toward others who are “different” in order to validate themselves. In contrast, the mark of becoming an adult is learning to look for commonalities with others [esp. parents and ethnic groups]. It is a sad commentary that our society today is so polarized, focused on what appear to be irreconcilable differences. It is both tragic, but reassuring that these differences disappear in the midst of a tragedy – at least for a time. But, the question remains: is our current state of extreme partisanship a sign of social regression in our country? That makes for an unstable society, one lacking a sense of humanity and civility.

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