I experienced my first earthquake this week. I was in Kokopo, East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. This pic was taken at sunset just hours beforehand.
I was there for work, my ‘day job’ takes me all over the Pacific, the earth’s most vulnerable region when it comes to natural disasters.
A group of us had just finished dinner and were saying good night. Suddenly the lights went out and the room shook for about 10 seconds. It stopped, the lights went back on and we laughed nervously and said ‘goodnight for real this time’. But then the lights went out again and the room really shook, things started moving around and we grabbed each other. Two women jumped out a window and others screamed as they lurched under tables. Some of the Papua New Guineans, well prepared for disasters, ran outside, which is what we all should have done.
It only lasted about a minute, but it felt like a long time. Turns out it was 42kms away and measured 7.1 on the scale. After shocks continued through the night and we slept with our doors open, a first in PNG.
The area where we were staying is not densely populated and there aren’t many buildings. I tried to imagine what 7.8 in Nepal might have been like and shuddered.
I didn’t sleep very well that night but am not trying to suggest that I have been through a traumatic incident, rather it has made me think about how vulnerable we are and what it would be like to make peace with uncertainty, to realise we are not in control and be ok with that.
I was in Vanuatu recently, 5 days after the complete destruction caused by cyclone Pam while her cousin Nathan battered Fiji with strong winds and heavy rains. Just this last week or so we have had wild weather in Sydney that claimed lives and homes, Nepal is grieving thousands and Australians have come to terms with 2 of their own being executed by the Indonesian Government.
Platitudes are not enough in such circumstances. We are not easily comforted and often we switch off if we are not directly affected. We disengage, perhaps donate some money to feel like we are doing something, to feel like we are not really as powerless as we are.
I remember how sick I felt around midnight during the Sydney siege last year. My daughter had seen clips from the Lindt cafe on YouTube, clips that were soon taken down but which at that stage were real. She showed me hostages telling the camera that there were bombs in Sydney, that people would start to be killed if the gunman did not get his way. At that point we did not know he was not a terrorist but rather a lone gunman, violent, unstable.
What happens out there to other people came closer that night and while it was a media sound bite, cliched and sensationalised, we lost a bit of our innocence.
Awful, horrific things happen the world over, as we know, at times too close to us, around us. We may find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time at the mercy of the elements, an accident, a cancerous growth or a crazed pilot. And regardless of how much we pray or prepare, dark things can still happen to us. There are no guarantees. Yet it still seems to come as a shock doesn’t it? I guess because we are busy planning our lives, preparing for our futures.
Again, platitudes do not help allay fear, nor do they help us ‘live each day as if it is our last’ as we do not really believe it will be. The Buddhist expression ‘the trouble is, you think you still have time’ is perhaps descriptive of our denial, or maybe our way of coping. Addiction (food, alcohol, shopping) can dull the nerves and deep breathing certainly calms the body, the latter undoubtedly more beneficial, but both are an attempt to numb the underlying sense that we are fragile beings, that death is inevitable, for some before its time.
And so I wonder what it would be like to make peace with uncertainty? To accept that we are not in control, to let go of living so risk averse. Where do we find that sort of peace and how does it help us actually live each day with freedom from fear and heaviness?
Though I don’t really know the answer to this, I think it must take practice. Trust in God? Meditate? These also provide no guarantees, but perhaps they help to ground us, help us relinquish control and the idea that somehow if we have the right insurance or stand on our heads 3 times at midnight, that we will be immune.
During the hardest time of my life to date, a wise woman said to me ‘whatever happens, you will be ok’. To which I wanted to scream at her, ‘I need you to tell me, assure me, that the situation will be ok’ but in her wisdom, she knew that it would fall apart, but also that I would recover and, be ok.
I will continue to work in disaster prone areas and fly in planes to get there while trying to avoid malaria and car accidents – the far less exotic and biggest risk to aid and development workers. But not doing these things would actually rob my peace more than continuing to do them, and so I go on, finding ways to be ok with uncertainty, earthquakes and the trauma around me. Death in its various forms as it turns out, is part of life. In the Christian tradition, it actually leads to resurrection.
Music, good books, cooking and my favourite people calm and centre me. So does yoga, nature, prayer and stillness. Gratitude is helping my friends in Vanuatu process loss and grief.
I’m learning to hold lightly and let go.
How do you?
Jane for team ‘a Girl & her world’
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