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Rich Manieri: From the ashes, a lesson in love and empathy

November 23, 2018

We’ve been taught a lesson which we would do well to commit to memory.

It’s a lesson about love, respect and what is possible when, as one of my academic colleagues said, we see those on the opposite side as rivals rather than enemies.

This particular lesson emerges from ashes.

Wildfires in Butte County, California have killed at least 79 people. Some 700 more are still unaccounted for. Among the geographic casualties is the town of Paradise.

If you haven’t seen the video, it’s horrific. There’s almost nothing left. Home after home is burned beyond recognition. Now police, National Guard troops, coroners and anthropologists are engaged in the grim exercise of sifting through the ashes for human remains.

Amid such destruction, on Nov. 10, a girls’ volleyball game was played.

Forest Lake Christian School hosted Paradise Adventist Academy in a Northern California Division VI semifinal match. But no one will remember the game.

What will be remembered is what happened before the two teams played.

Many of the Paradise players had lost virtually everything they owned in the fires, including their volleyball equipment and uniforms. They were prepared to play the match against Forest Lake in their street clothes if necessary. So, they made the two-hour drive to Forest Lake.

What the Paradise players didn’t know was that the Forest Lake team members had asked the California Interscholastic Federation if, rather than charging admission, it could accept donations for Paradise Adventist Academy team members and for their families,” the L.A. Times reported.

Donations came in - $300 per Paradise player, along with gift cards.

But there was something else.

Awaiting the Paradise players when they arrived were brand new uniforms, knee pads, socks, donated clothes and dinner. It was all arranged by the Forest Lake players.

“This is truly awe-inspiring how in a time of our greatest needs, fellow students, schools and communities continue to step up and be a shining light for all of us,” CIF Executive Director Roger Blake told the Times.

“I’ve never been so overwhelmed by so many things I would have never thought possible, and this is one of the most amazing things I could ever have thought would happen,” Paradise Adventist head coach Jason Eyer told The Union newspaper. “Your community is awesome. We will be forever grateful.”

One of the Paradise players said she felt a sense of “overwhelming love” when she saw the new uniforms lined up on the bleachers.

This story has already faded from public view. What we do with it now is up to us.

We live in a time when lashing out is our default. We don’t listen to our adversaries — political or otherwise — but we shout them down. Those with whom we disagree must be silenced. We’d much rather with the argument that consider someone else’s perspective.

I’m not sure why this is, but it is.

“We are quick to jump to action without careful examination of all the facts,” wrote clinical psychologist Goal Auzeen Saedi in Psychology Today in 2013. Imagine what she would write today.

“We feel wronged, threatened, insulted, and find experiences in our environment that confirm this. If you want to feel insulted, there are numerous ways to ensure this does in fact happen to you. It is akin to sensitivity toward social rejection that clinicians reference when assessing their clients,” wrote Saidi.

I get a fair amount of hate mail. Hard to believe, I realize, but it’s true. The amazing thing is it’s almost as if the writers of such mail got together, compared notes and came up with a template.

There’s usually a fair amount of name calling, which sometimes makes it first appearance in the salutation. My favorite was “Dear Mr. Boil on journalism’s rear.” You can imagine how the rest of the email read.

I usually laugh off the insults and I always respond, respectfully I hope. But it always fascinates me that most people who take issue with something I’ve written and respond simply want to argue. I read a lot of emails in all capital letters overloaded with exclamation points. I’ll rarely read something like, “Well, I don’t really see it that way but you might have a point.” Although, there are times when an angry emailer and I are able to find common ground. The writer of the “Dear Mr. Boil” email and I wound up wishing each other happy holidays.

My prayer this Thanksgiving, and this holiday season, is for a reappearance of empathy, the kind showed by the Forest Lake Christian volleyball team. And in case you didn’t hear, Forest Lake won the match. But we should all remember that those girls took it upon themselves to make sure Paradise was not lost.

Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. His book, “We Burn on Friday: A Memoir of My Father and Me” is available at amazon.com. You can reach him at manieri2@gmail.com.

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