What is your Response to Crisis? (My Experience of Aloha While on Maui During the August 2023 Wildfires)
If you haven’t been to Maui, think of it as a large County in the shape of two rings — like a lopsided infinity sign. The two volcanoes in the center can’t be inhabited, so everyone lives in the outer rings of land, some areas more developed than others. There are only three full cities: Kahului/Wailuku, Kiehe (partly affected by the recent fires), and Lahaina (now gone). The rest of Maui’s populated areas feel like pop-up suburban housing, towns you’ll literally miss if you blink, farms, and mansion estates. It’s relatively unpopulated here for the size (compared to the metropolis of Honolulu) and also quite spread out. There are 2 movie theaters on the island, and they only play blockbuster films. If you’ve lived on this island for a while, you likely have friends or family on both this island, and the others. People live in their main hub, but it only takes 1-2 hours to visit anywhere you want to go. Each area of the island has different weather and thus different vibes, but it feels cohesive.
We are the little county of Maui.
Comfort Zones During Crises
This morning my landlord paused his honeybee box-making to comment that the fires were really pushing locals out of their comfort zones. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Where in one’s comfort zone is a healthy place to be during a time of crisis?
I live on the north shore of Maui on a farm in “the jungle”, which didn’t catch on fire. However, everyone on this island has and will continue to be impacted to different degrees from the fallout of the fires. Of course those who are experiencing the biggest impact lost homes, livelihoods, family, friends and pets, and are now being forced to rebuild their lives elsewhere, on or off island.
But for those of us not directly impacted by physical fire, we are still affected. And, the response has varied. Some immediately jumped in to help those in need, offering their homes and resources to strangers or volunteering however they could. Others did not physically or financially help because they couldn’t – they emotionally froze.
Under the frantic rush to identify and help the people in need was a layer of trepidation; the experience of navigating personal time & resource boundaries can be deeply scary. How much am I willing to give to alleviate others’ crisis? Is that even needed? Will anything I have to give even make an impact? Will people judge me for not doing enough? For some, jumping into action is not only within their comfort zone, it’s what makes them feel alive and full of purpose. They may know exactly what they have excess of, and therefore what they can give to those in need. For others, their stress responders make them freeze, and they need to go inward to process and to grieve, even if the danger is just something they’re witnessing. They may grip tighter around whatever they have, afraid of what might come next.
There is a rainbow of responses people can exhibit when their comfort zone is threatened. And just like the colors of the rainbow, no one color is “more correct” than another.
Where I live, our wifi and cell service was knocked out. Because I had an appointment in town, I happened to be the first on my farm to learn about the fires. I saw aerial footage taken by the friend of a friend and my disbelief melted into grief. A sense of guilt and helplessness set in. I began to feel guilt for any creature comforts I was experiencing – the food I was eating, the electricity I enjoyed. Although I actively began volunteering to sort donations and cook meals, I still felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness, and that nothing I did could ever be enough. I felt angry that I was limited to volunteering with big organizations that felt inefficient and sterile. I felt ashamed that with all my education, I’d never bothered to cultivate a survival skill that would help others in an acute crisis. When not volunteering, I found myself organizing my tiny hut – cleaning, making lists, and stirring in the general anxiety of powerlessness. After talking with friends, I realized I was not alone with these feelings.
Luckily, early on, some suggestions made by a local, elder spiritual leader helped transmute things for many in my community. She let us know that the overwhelming sentiment of the people in the main emergency shelter was that they were grateful to be alive and just wanted the island to hold the spirit of Aloha (love) so they could feel supported in keeping their spirits up. My current state was nowhere near a spirit of Aloha, and my internal stories of inadequacy did nothing but ripple out to others as stress. Her permission to bring forward love and trust in myself as an act of service felt like a dam bursting open inside me. The relief shifted everything.
Most impactfully, she advised us to think back to the first crisis we could remember facing as a child, and how we reacted to it both short and long-term. How does our current response to the fires relate to our first reactions to crises as children?
Growing up, I remember my little sister used to cry for hours, constantly ill and in agony. I could hear her through our bedrooms’ shared wall, empathetically feeling her pain. I could neither control her sounds, nor shut them out. I also felt the fear and stress of my parents who were constantly tending to her. I struggled with sadness, feeling useless, and anger with my parents for not being able to stop her pain. And, I couldn’t give myself permission to be happy or playful in the presence of everyone feeling so concerned.
I was a witness to suffering I didn’t understand, and since I couldn’t control the circumstances around me, I started organizing what I did have control over: the objects in my room. I carefully positioned things on my shelves, aligned perfectly in arrangements dictated by my very specific and strong feelings. Usually, my feelings were never fully satisfied.
Though these memories were long forgotten, they laid the foundational roads of my nervous system and mental response to others’ suffering. The elder’s question brought my memories back so clearly, and I realized Maui’s crisis is like a semi-truck cruising around on the same emotional roads. Understanding the coping patterns I developed as a child was the key to understanding how to navigate out of the swirling fears and projected stories that were keeping me frozen, circling endlessly in the roundabout at the center of my comfort zone. Once I exited the roundabout, my childhood roads looked small in the rearview mirror, and I could drive right up to the edge of my comfort zone again.
Then, my attitude volunteering relaxed into positivity and openness. I now show up with a clear mind to cook, pray, sort, or donate exactly as I have capacity for. I didn’t know how to deal with emotional overwhelm when I was a child. As an adult, I now respect what my intuition tells me, and when I start to clench, I step away to take a break.
I now accept that my sensitivity to things is what makes me a compassionate human. Sensitivity is not a weakness. It just means I need to step away and recover sometimes, even when the pain is not my own. The mantra around Maui is that the recovery efforts are a marathon, not a sprint. This simple act of introspection (svadhyaya) allowed me to step back and assume a more sustainable pace, one fueled by care rather than by trying to resolve my own childhood trauma.
Just as important, my realizations erased any secret resentment I was projecting on others who seemed ineffective or not doing enough to “help.” Now that resentment doesn’t occur to me. I just ask people I meet about their fears and what would make them feel better – more comfortable. It doesn’t matter if they are a direct “victim” of the fire or not. We are all impacted as a collective community and I’m grateful to have had someone show me how to recognize my own limitations, so that I could expand my support & love for ALL of Maui, whatever level of privilege they have, whatever level of crisis they are in, and wherever they need to be within their comfort zone during a time of change.
Through introspection, I found my Aloha spirit.
I’ve historically thought of comfort zones as physical things that provide reliability and buffer us from stress- a home, a job, a relationship. Maui has rewritten that definition for me. Now I see comfort zones as the familiar mental stories we create about ourselves, our surroundings, and our ability to thrive. American culture peddles “being outside our comfort zone” as the place where all progress is made. However, this doesn’t seem reasonable or feasible in times of crisis. Crisis is the gift that brings us to the EDGE of our comfort zone. This seems like a helpful place to be – a place from which you can see old inner stories, and be open to what new realities are possible outside the zone.
Becky is currently volunteering at: Hungry Heros Hawaii, a volunteer-run organization on Maui delivering fresh meals and daily supplies to those in need. Read more about them and make a donation at: hhhmaui.org.
According to ancient yoga texts, svadhyaya (introspection) is one of the 10 attitudes and disciplines to adopt in order to progress towards inner serenity (yoga). If you would like to learn more about how you navigate crises, try doing what I did, and ask yourself the following questions to help map the inner landmarks of your comfort zone…
What are your crisis patterns?
What are your emotional triggers?
What are your baseline needs to feel safe?
Who do you become when you step beyond your nervous system’s edge?
What makes you feel contracted, fearful, grasping? Expansive, hopeful, and generous?
What inspires you so much you are willing to live at your edge where things are less safe, but you have access to more possibility?
What is the wildest dream for your life that you are afraid to say out loud?
And if that’s possible, what else is possible?
I invite you to get creative, and draw a literal map.