"It is not so much what lies behind us or...

"It is not so much what lies behind us or ahead that matters, but what lies within,' Stephen G. Post. Credit: Donna Grethen

For a lot of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans, these are the worst of times. Nature, with superstorm Sandy, has shown us who's boss, and we are living with consequences that are nothing short of devastating. Then along come Wednesday's nor'easter to dump snow, freeze unheated and flooded homes, and interfere with desperately needed gasoline deliveries and grid repairs.

Communities like Babylon, Lindenhurst and Sayville are still really struggling, and the trauma is exacerbated by the sense of abandonment also felt in the Rockaways, Staten Island, Red Hook in Brooklyn and the Jersey Shore. Basic needs are not being met.

The shadowy side of human nature comes out under such conditions. There is anarchy here and there, some looting on the South Shore, and sporadic altercations arise at gas stations as police stand guard. Tempers can get short, and arguments can erupt.

But for the most part, people are just crying out for help in their desperation, and they are frustrated and scared for their loved ones and for themselves. The hardest hit may hear that things will get back to normal, but not for a long while. Their survival, short- and long-term, remains a question.

Our region has a challenge as great as 9/11. It comes from nature rather than arrogant fanaticism. In addition to the loss of lives, businesses, jobs, homes, cars and everything else that is familiar and basic in everyday living, there is a nagging sense of loss of control. The wave that crashed through the back porch is followed in a few days by driving snow and icy winds. Will this ever end? During such times, people tend to look upward or inward to whatever it is in the universe that might have more control than we do.

For those in a position to help, this is your best buffer against hopelessness.

The numbers of volunteers who are continuing to help many imperiled victims are impressive. Compassion is an emotional force in human nature, but it is more than that -- it is an activity to alleviate suffering in practical ways. There is a lot of good going on, despite its being a week and a half since Sandy unleashed her ruinous blow, and we see that side of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans coming out that is a far cry from the superficial "I don't do nothin' for nothin' " attitude that we sometimes profess, but in hard times ignore.

If possible, go out and do something that draws on your talents and strengths. Feel effective. Pay it forward, no need to pay it back, and hope to inspire others to go and do likewise. Have confidence that you are the right person, in the right place, at the right time, with the right gifts, to help the person who is greatly in need. This is even more needed as we get further away from Sandy's initial impact.

As a by-product, you might just find a deeper meaning in life than day-to-day routines bring to light. The 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey, released by United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch, interviewed 4,500 American adults and found that 68 percent of those who volunteered in the last year reported that it made them feel physically healthier; 96 percent said that volunteering "made me happier"; and 92 percent agreed that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life.

Now and in the weeks ahead, this is a chance to renew our own commitment to community. It may take the form of quietly affirming and encouraging a neighbor, of helping them in ways small and large, of listening undistracted and unhurried, of compassion in responding wisely and actively to suffering when we see it, of loyalty in sticking with others through the peaks and valleys of their lives so they know that they can count on you, and of creativity in using your gifts to rebuild your neighborhood.

Yes, these are astonishingly hard times and there is no way around that. For many this is the disaster of a lifetime. Even still, it is not so much what lies behind us or ahead that matters, but what lies within.

Stephen G. Post is professor of preventive medicine and founding director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. He is the author of "The Hidden Gifts of Helping."