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On Thursday, November 8th, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history ignited in a sleepy forest town known—now ironically—as Paradise.

Soon after Paradise turned hellish, a devastating inferno in Southern California began to rage. As I write this, a quarter of a million people have been evacuated from the fire-affected areas, and 48 souls have lost their lives. More than two hundred people are still missing and unaccounted for—my uncle John is one of them.

We have searched all avenues open to us, with no word. John is one of 228 missing, and the authorities estimate that the chances of finding any of these people alive is very slim. With each day that passes we realize the likelihood of him being found alive would require a miracle.

Mourning my uncle’s absence, my family and I have spent much time in prayer, trying to make sense of this heartbreaking situation. I realized that no one is impervious to Mother Nature. The well-to-do residents of glamorous Malibu on California’s coast felt the same terror and distress as the inhabitants of the modest town of Paradise. In fact, everyone in the State of California has been touched, the choking smoke gripping our breath with toxic air. As we have all been instructed by local authorities to “stay in our homes,” the vulnerable homeless people and animals struggle for their survival in a noxious environment.

Here in California with our idyllic weather, we have in the past felt somewhat removed from catastrophes like tornadoes, hurricanes, and the many natural disasters that afflict other parts of the country and the world—but the fires bring home the fact that no one is immune.

It seems that the closer one comes to disaster, the more one feels the effects. If there is a deadly flood in another country we might think, “Oh, that’s tragic!” but then in perhaps in a few weeks, we may forget about it. If our nation experiences devastation in one area, we feel bad, but we may not be intimately connected to it. As the calamity draws closer and closer to us, we really begin to feel the effects—which may lead us to an increased sense of empathy and compassion for others.

Why is that? People are the same no matter how close or far away they may reside. The loss of life is exactly the same, because as the Baha’i teachings say, we are all equal in the eyes of God:

Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 20.

These calamities that appear all over the world bring us an important message: we are creations of the same God. Our culture, race, sex, or religion don’t matter—in the end we belong to God, and we must take care of each other, no matter how near or far we dwell. Though harrowing, these experiences teach us about the bigger picture, to acknowledge our essential oneness and awaken our need for unity:

God has created the world as one—the boundaries are marked out by man. God has not divided the lands, but each man has his house and meadow; horses and dogs do not divide the fields into parts. That is why Baha’u’llah says: “Let not a man glory in that he loves his country, but that he loves his kind.” All are of one family, one race; all are human beings. Differences as to the partition of lands should not be the cause of separation among the people.

The Old Testament says that God created man like unto His own image; in the Qur’an it says: “There is no difference in the Creation of God!” Think well, God has created all, cares for all, and all are under His protection. The policy of God is better than our policy. We are not as wise as God!  – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 55.

When the world is tested by disasters, great and small, if we keep the bigger picture in mind we can make better sense of them. Strange as it may seem, there can be a hidden blessing to manifest from these distressing events. They remind us to place our reliance on a loving Creator, the only One able to transmute our circumstances. They cleanse our spirits as we realize and bring our attention to and appreciate each other and what most matters in this life. They prompt us to recognize that we are literally, as Baha’u’llah said, “made of the same dust.” They remind us that this life is precious and fleeting, and to focus on bettering ourselves for the life to come. This we can do by recognizing more clearly that our life’s purpose is to grow spiritually by serving our fellow human beings:

O Son of Man! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 15.

Although outwardly cataclysms are hard to understand and to endure, yet there lies a great wisdom behind them which appears later. All the visible material events are inter-related with invisible spiritual forces. – Abdu’l-BahaDivine Philosophy, p. 115.

As I look out my window today, the sun is a haunting shade of red and the sky is a desolate smoky grey. It is not safe to breathe the air, and I am saddened by the loss of our loved ones. But when I look at the world as a whole, I know tragedy teaches inner lessons for us all. Though we may not recognize it fully, we are all connected, and we need to unite and support each other in order to thrive on our beloved Earth. No one is immune to troubles, which means that we must love and care for each other now, so when our time of need comes we will hopefully find willing souls to care for us. Ultimately, we must put our full trust and reliance in God:

Let them cling to the hem of Almighty God, and put their faith in the Beauty of the most High; let them lean on the unfailing help that cometh from the Ancient Kingdom, and depend on the care and protection of the generous Lord. – Abdu’l-BahaSelections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 9-10.

19 Comments

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  • rodney Richards
    Nov 17, 2018
    Freud said we humans go out of our way to "avoid pain." We also "seek pleasure" although that "pleasure may not be good for us. I am deeply touched by your account, having lived in Orange County during my high school/college years. Buildings can be rebuilt, land can be restored, but human life cannot be regenerated once lost, only transformed into spirit and we all hope these souls are better off in the next world. You make another telling point for some who are removed for the pain and feel it doesn't affect them (until disaster is on their doorstep). ...A life of service is the best way of helping the world heal from trials and tests, whether fires, earthquakes, tsunamis etc. That is a well-lived legacy. Prayers to you and all.
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    • Nov 17, 2018
      Thank you dear Rodney for your insightful as ever thoughts. I grew up in Long Beach - not so far away. Anyway, I always value your profound comments and sincere compassion. My prayers for you as well.
  • Jeanie Halstead
    Nov 16, 2018
    Dear Kathy, thru tears I've read your heart wrenching story, and yet it was comforting and uplifting as well! Living in Arizona we're no stranger to fires. In 2017 we had to prepare to evacuate because of the Goodwin fire. Just the preparation was so stressful but it taught many lessons about what was important to take. We could see the huge fire and smoke from our porch but miraculously they were able to divert it and we didn't have to go. Not a single breath is guaranteed. Standing with you in solidarity and unity during these grievous sufferings! Sending ...love and virtual hugs!
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    • Nov 16, 2018
      That does sound stressful dear Jeanie! You are so right in saying that not a single breath is guaranteed. Something to remember. Love and hugs back to you dear friend.
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Nov 16, 2018
    After suffering through 2 fires as a child and 1 as an adult, I can not even look at the news showing the flames for more than a few minutes as I cry. I cry for loved one, for the animals, the heartache and loss, for those brave souls fighting, helping and taking in needy people and animals during the crisis. I fall to pieces inside for these things, and can just pray as much as possible that those who lost their lives were done swiftly and immediately taken home to the world of God. Thank you very much for ...writing this for as much as I feel suffering for you all my only consolation is the brining together of humanity in times of need. But we must continue to do this in the 'good' times as well. God's blessing to you and the family.
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    • Nov 16, 2018
      I am so sorry for the harrowing experiences that you have had with fires, that no doubt left you with Post Traumatic stress, dear Rosslyn. That must have been especially terrifying as a child. Thank you for sharing your Beautiful insights and many blessings to you as well. ❤️
  • Sharon Hulin
    Nov 15, 2018
    Thank you for your thoughts and sharing your heartfelt story of loss in the fire; loss of loved ones, loss of unknown lives, loss of safety and the necessary existential crises this raises within the most stalwart of believers. Weaving in the spiritual teachings as a focus, which soothes the pain is both soothing and also meaning making. I pray for the wellbeing of all dealing with this fire, in this world and beyond, and wish peace to all suffering in this fire.
    • Nov 15, 2018
      Thank you so much for your loving support, dear Sharon. We are all connected in God's love.
  • Nov 15, 2018
    A beautiful soul Mr. John Sedwick. We still hold out hope that this 83 yo former Volunteer Fire Fighter is just out doing his heartfelt duty to protect the area he has lived in and loved his whole life. Today will be one week since any of us have heard from him. Excellently written and very profound. Thank you 🙏
    • Nov 15, 2018
      The final word was received today. Human remains were found in the rubble that remains of uncle Johns house. The police visited the location with cadaver dogs and located his remains. He went down with his house and the memories he held so close from it.
      God speed Uncle John, we love you.
    • Nov 15, 2018
      You are right my dear Paul. He is dearly loved!
  • Linda Sue Covey
    Nov 15, 2018
    My 92 yr old aunt, minus her walker, by the aid of a police offficer, was taken to safety in a nearby town. She had a harrowing 6 hr ride in the dog seat of the police cruiser, in which she said “he made his own road thru burning trees and burning bushes. I’m so thankful she made it out of Paradise, her home for many years. She lost all, but her son has taken her shopping for clothes and has rented a condo for her in another nearby town. I’m so sorry for the loss of your uncle😞. ...
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    • Nov 15, 2018
      I am so grateful to hear that your aunt made it out safely dear Linda Sue! ❤️ What a harrowing tale! 🙏Thank you for sharing that.
    • Nov 15, 2018
      Are you related to the Vindhurst’s/morrows?
  • Nov 15, 2018
    So profoundly written and thought provoking. What a beautiful soul you are to have written this in a way that captures the underlying messages of any tragedy we face as humans in this ever changeable world.
    • Nov 15, 2018
      Thank you for your loving support and encouragement during this difficult time for us all, dear Patricia.❤️
  • Jules R
    Nov 15, 2018
    Pertinent and thought provoking article. Thank you!
  • Nov 15, 2018
    Beautiful, poignant. An uplifting reminder despite being in the midst of likely loss.
    • Nov 15, 2018
      Thank you dear Catherine. Unfortunately the death toll has risen to 59 since I wrote this article. There are 130 people missing with many thousands homeless.