Home Nonprofit Tragedy Isn’t Always Obvious

Tragedy Isn’t Always Obvious

by Clay Harmon

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I’d like to tell you a story about a night in 1958, in Lituya Bay, Alaska. A colossal natural event occurred that resulted in the deaths of five people. Four others survived as eyewitnesses.

At the back of the seven-mile long Lituya Bay inlet, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the mountainside, starting an avalanche that dumped millions of cubic meters of sediment into the water. A wave radiated outward, hundreds of feet tall, splashing up the sides of the bay, and ripping out trees 1,700 feet above sea level. The wave continued toward the inlet’s mouth, where three boats waited. Two boats rode the wave—a husband and wife in one, a father and son in the other—dozens of feet above the tree line, landing safely on the back of the wave. The third boat capsized, and the people died.


A new term arose from the event: mega-tsunami. One of the most powerful natural events in recorded history had occurred, and only a few were present to witness its magnitude. No one could dispute the awe-inspiring power of the 1958 Lituya Bay Tsunami, yet almost no one has heard about it. Why is that?

Events like this happen all the time. Mother Nature will flex her muscles and change the earth’s landscape forever, but oftentimes these events are far removed from civilization. Even when they’re not, people who aren’t affected—those of us on the other side of the planet, or country—will keep on living, minds focused on our own world.

Compassion And Proximity To Tragedy

People rarely measure the gravity of an event by its literal power—by size, scope, or violence. They measure it with the yardstick of their personal bubble. It is why you might hear about thousands dying halfway around the world, but forget about the story seconds after reading it. It’s hard to take something seriously that doesn’t affect your day-to-day life.

It’s easy to get philosophical with arguments like: If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? An entire world turns beyond the breadth of our civilization, on the fringes of society, in the middle of nowhere. But even when it affects our fellow man, we will minimize the consequences beyond our own myopic vision. It’s hard to dedicate the energy of thinking about the 100 civilians dying every month in the Yemen War when we have a 5 p.m. work deadline.

Incredible events are happening all around you, all the time. But for many of those you meet or pass in the street, you’re a background character in their lives. They also have problems, big and small, monumental and insignificant—problems you couldn’t possibly know about.

What happens when you encounter these individuals and the exchange is curt, crass, or maybe even upsetting? The default reaction is to take offense and rise to arms against that person, while never having compassion on them enough to consider what may be going on in their lives to warrant such behavior. Remember, life is infinitely complex beyond you, and that’s what makes it beautiful.

Learning Compassion

Caring for others is why nonprofits exist in the first place, so let’s learn to have more compassion. It doesn’t matter if someone is an acquaintance, a coworker, or a stranger in the supermarket. Think of everything tragic that has occurred in your life. Everyone around you has more or less experienced the same tragedies. Maybe even worse. And maybe you’re just catching someone at a bad time. So learn to give them the benefit of the doubt. Try to understand where they’re coming from, and you’ll realize some of their actions make a lot more sense.

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