(Note: This post was written in April 2018)
Here I sit, in a VRBO-rented condo in the tiny resort town of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. It’s been over six months since Hurricane Maria devastated the island, leaving its 3.3 million inhabitants entirely without power and water for over two months. Even now, signs of the storm are everywhere you look.
Roof tiles missing, large holes in fences and wall stucco, broken and dangling street lights. The condo complex is eerily quiet. Of the three pools, only one is fully operational, but we’ve had it mostly to ourselves all week. Many of the smaller tourist attractions are closed, but some struggling tour operators are still hanging on.
Across the island, buildings and jungle alike are stripped bare of their natural coverings. But with the help of many skilled workers, some blue FEMA tarps and the passage of time, life is slowly returning to a semblance of… or maybe a new kind of… normal.
The thing is, when you really look at the island itself, not a whole lot has changed. The coasts are basically the same shape. The warm Caribbean waters are still that gorgeous cerulean blue. Palm trees still stand, the beaches still have sand and seaweed and shells, just like beaches should. It still rains some days and the sun still shines most of the others. Nature; even the animals act like nothing even happened.
So, why is the sense of loss still so palpable? Why have so many Puerto Ricans left the island for good? Why, when the island itself is still very much the same as it always has been, do the tourists not come back?
While my husband and I and our large family have been here, we’ve noticed that we’ve been… noticed. We get that we’re a large group of obvious gringos from the arctic north, having spent the recent winter under layers of sweaters and parkas, so our pale skin sets us apart before our lack of Spanish even becomes apparent. But this is a tourist town. This should be a very normal sight each winter.
I could be imagining this, but what I believe I’ve seen in the eyes of the people noticing our presence here is a mixture of relief, gratitude and possibly some resentment. I’ve sensed a combination of, “The tourists are coming back!” and “What took you so long?” and maybe a little bit of, “So, NOW you want to pay attention to us?”
Who knows? Maybe I’m just projecting my own perceptions onto the people here. Maybe I’m just imagining what I might feel like if I were them.
So, back to my question… if so much of what really makes Puerto Rico such a magical place is still the same, why does it feel so different?
My theory is that it’s the experience of the people that has changed. It’s the trauma inflicted on them first by the storm and its aftermath and then by their sense of abandonment by the outside world. What these people have gone through has changed them.
The island is bouncing back, and by and large, the people are too. But just like the island and its inhabitants, as humans, we tend to take much longer to recover emotionally from our experiences than we do physically from the scars we acquire. Our experiences change us. They change the way we see our world and our place in it. They change the way we react to events and circumstances. Sometimes for the better. And other times, not so much.
So, what makes the difference between bouncing back from a major setback in your life or sinking into a slump? Why do some people seem to be able to get right back up and keep moving forward with a smile on their faces after being knocked down and for others, they seem to get stuck, unable to get back up at all?
I believe the answer to these questions is the secret to all success… in business, in life, in love, in everything.
I believe the answer is gratitude.
Gratitude for the good that is left after the storm passes and clean-up begins. Gratitude for our experiences and all we can learn from them, both good and bad. Gratitude lets us see the cup half full, rather than empty. Gratitude shows us what we are still capable of, rather than what our new limitations are. Gratitude focuses on what we have, rather than what we lack. Gratitude helps us get back up when we’ve been knocked down, if for no other reason than because we’re simply grateful THAT WE CAN.
I have no doubt Puerto Rico will emerge from this crisis stronger and more resilient than ever. Her people are good-hearted and generous and hopefully, the world will return these qualities to them in the form of assistance and support. But either way, she is coming back to life and moving forward.
So, the next time I take a direct hit from the storms of life and my world is thrown into darkness, difficulty and chaos; rather than raging at the skies for all that I’ve been robbed of, if I will look around with gratitude for all that I still have—I might be able to imagine and even build a future more beautiful than before.
The time will pass, whether I’m grateful or angry. The outcome will depend entirely on me.