The earthquake in Sendai, Japan offers a shocking reminder of the awesome and sometimes destructive power of nature. Over the last several days, I have found myself watching amateur videos and news reports of the tsunami that completely devastated many of the coastal areas near the epicenter. The immensity of the destruction and human suffering are utterly unfathomable.
At times like this, I think that my individual concerns are quite insignificant by comparison. I also feel humbled by my own mortality.
When I was a child, I lived for about eight years on the south side of Seattle, which has its own history of earthquakes. At least once a year, my grade school practiced earthquake drills. The teacher would stand at the head of the classroom and announce a make-believe tremor, then all the students would scramble under the shelter of tables and desks. We were instructed to crouch low to the ground with our backs to the windows and our hands over our heads. This position was supposed shield our bodies from broken glass and falling debris. From the innocent perspective of a child, these drills seemed like a game. I never imagined that the earth could ever really move beneath my feet, but if it happened, I felt confident and prepared.
In all the years I lived in Seattle, I never felt the earth shake.
My first earthquake experience happened during my mission to Guatemala when I had been in country for less than a month.
On September 18, 1991 at 3:48 in the morning, an earthquake measuring about 6.0 on the Richter scale shook the nation of Guatemala, though we later heard varying reports regarding its intensity. The epicenter was probably less than a hundred miles away.
The quake woke me from a deep sleep. The ground jolted in a sharp side to side motion and felt as though a gorilla had grabbed a hold of my bed frame and jerked it violently from one side to the other. The sound was startling. We lived in a one room shack with no insulation and a corrugated tin roof. All the metal rooftops in the neighborhood combined into a deafening roar, like the sound of a passing freight train.
When the shaking stopped, a chorus of howling dogs pierced the air, mingled with the screams of frightened people.
The whole event lasted about ten seconds. In fact, it all happened so quickly that it seemed like a dream. I sat up in bed and struggled to see into the darkness. Finally I called out to my companion, “Compa, what happened?”
He seemed annoyed by my question. “It was an earthquake,” he mumbled, “They happen all the time; now go back to sleep.”
As a child, I prepared for this moment, but when it really happened, I felt utterly powerless. I must have sat awake for more than an hour as the proverbial "Fear of God" became palpable and real. In my youthful arrogance, I sometimes felt immortal, but the earthquake made me think just how insignificant we really are and shattered all my illusions of human dominion over the nature. In that moment, I stared into the face of my own destructibility.
The next day, we heard that nineteen people died in a neighboring town.
I realized that for all our technology and learning, life is still fragile. Throughout the following days, I reflected on my childhood earthquake drills and realized that my preparation did nothing to help. By the time I understood the danger, the earthquake had already passed. We simply had no time to even consider taking shelter. If my house had fallen, I would have died, period. As a young person growing up in the United States, I was conditioned to believe that I control my own destiny, and while I still believe in personal choice, I realized that some things cannot be helped.
Now as I watch the horrifying images from the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I find myself stricken with grief. I struggle to understand why some survived and others perished under collapsed buildings or under the black wave of the sea as it extended beyond its normal bounds. Perhaps some things are unknowable. Yes, life is fragile, and ultimately precious. In the end, we cannot control the awesome forces of nature, but we can always choose to act with compassion for our fellow beings.
To help the victims of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami, you can find a listing of various relief organizations working in Japan by clicking HERE.
Photo Credit: Kyodo News/AP
Photo Credit: Kyodo News/AP