the all-seeingeyeConfessions of a Red Cross Emergency Volunteer

Reprinted from the Washtenaw County Red Cross' newletter, May, 2008

Midway upon the journey of our life I found that I was in a dusky wood;
For the right path, whence I had strayed, was lost.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto 1, translated by Lawrence Grant White

I am forty-eight. By any realistic measure my life is better than half over. I have done all the things one is supposed to do. I have a good job with great benefits. I have a wife and an adult son. I own my own home, have a measure of financial security, and acceptable hobbies. It has been a largely unchallenging middle-class existence.

Yet I am not immune to doubt. Far from it. Perhaps this comfortable life has made it inevitable. There is the moment of realization-I've followed the rules, checked off the list, and something is still not quite right. Where did I stray? In my path through life I've stayed well inside the comfort zone. I did the responsible things for my family. I managed to get this far through life without seriously challenging my inner warrior.

If a jolt of adrenaline were all I lacked, I'd take to jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. Recreational terror can keep the warrior at bay, but it is an incomplete solution. It lacks a purpose-a mission, something to give it a greater value than self-gratification. A warrior without a battle is a sorry thing. General Grant is an oft-cited example: a hard-drinking failure when not at war. I found myself headed that way, adrift and struggling to find where I belonged.

And then my battle came to find me in the aftermath of this country's most extensive natural disaster. I've been asked what it was that inspired me to volunteer for the disaster relief operation after Hurricane Katrina. Was it a moral obligation? Did my faith require charity? Did I have some connection with the region? My answer disappoints many-I got mad, furiously mad that my people, any people, were in peril. The warrior woke up. Here, at last, was a place I could make a difference.

I remember the focused calm as I packed for my assignment. Was it fear that directed me? No. While there were things to fear in the uncertainty of those days, the focus came from the realization that all petty concerns had passed away-leaving nothing in its place but a grim and selfless determination in the face of a largely indifferent world. It was a moment of clarity-perhaps a moment of moral certitude that is a rare gift in this complex world. This discovery alone can carry you beyond fear, beyond uncertainty. It is the moment in which the cry -"Sancho, my armor!"-loses its power to amuse and becomes inspiring.

And in that place and in that time, I learned about myself-and what it means to find and show the way-just the first hint of the difference between being in charge and leading.

Dale Austin is a volunteer in the senior leadership position for the Emergency Services Department of the Washtenaw County chapter. He first came to volunteer in September 2005; since that time, he has been deployed to national disasters 3 times, and currently volunteers 10-15 hours week. The Red Cross is extremely grateful for the support of his employer, the University of Michigan's Department of Geological Sciences, where Dale works as a graphic artist.