After the tsunami: 2. What the wave brought me

2 Dec

A tsunami is a sudden tide of water: but with that tide of water there came so much more. Literally, rubbish of every imaginable kind, including plants, coral, smashed up buildings, furniture, people's belongings, and the contents of the sewerage and drainage systems. This is why infection is such a huge issue for those who have survived.

More than all that, the wave brought its own tide of emotional and social experiences and frankly these are much more long-term and difficult to deal with, or even describe.

In my previous post, I spoke of the sense of being exposed.

One aspect of this sense of exposure is an acute sensitivity to what was happening around us. The post-traumatic experience includes many such aspects. As I was lying in hospital, every time a loud vehicle drew into the parking lot outside, it seemed to me like the earthquake was happening again. Several times I woke from sleep asking my wife whether she too had felt the tremors of the earth. There was no such shaking.

Subsequently, we all felt that people around us, especially any groups of people, were just so loud. Crowds are hard to handle.

At the time, and much more since, I have become aware of some amazing tensions or apparent tensions within our experiences. I will try to describe several of these.

Fast and slow: One very immediate aspect of my experience was the sense that so much had happened so quickly. I have heard one Samoan government minister say that the main event of the tsunami lasted 8 minutes. It sure did come in a hurry! And our lives will never be the same again. For the local people, we could say that their whole world was shattered and washed away, instantaneously, and that is true in so many ways for all of us. Yet there was a remarkable sense of slow-motion in it all as well. That first day was so long, and the first night so long: and the recovery process has seemed so slow. So slow. I have been learning to accept the meaning of the word 'patient' as an adjective, as well as a noun. 

Separate and together: The immediate experience of the tsunami separated me from my wife and daughter.The time when I did not know where Merilyn was, or even if she was alive, and she did not know where I was, or our daughter also, was like an eternity. Then came that extraordinary moment of seeing one another! For those of us who survived the wave there is an indescribable linkage, something which has bound us together for always. And those who were not there cannot imagine the experience.

In the weeks since that event, our minds have also separated us from it. The mind blocks out those horrific experiences. Some moments I can recall, and others come back to me without me wanting them too. But mostly what I carry with me is the sense of something surrounding me, but it is unseen and mostly unfelt. It is with me, but my immediate awareness is separated from it.

More so, the wave gave to us the most remarkable sense of belonging to each other, to our kids, our families, and indeed to the whole of humanity. The acute awareness that we almost lost everything, everyone, our whole lives, made us value each other and our own lives in a fresh way. We belong to each other. So many things that used to cause us annoyance or criticism of each other or ourselves are no longer that important. We are all in this together: let's never forget that.

One personal aspect of this has been my appreciation of people's efforts. I am strongly committed to excellence, with a very high work ethic. Those of us of this disposition can be so critical of others' efforts. During this year, sections of the media in Victoria have been rampantly criticizing my brother Russell, who is chief of the country fire services, and many other such agencies and people, following the devastating fires last February. So many smart people think they know what should have been done. 

Again, lying in my hospital bed, I observed people doing much less than the highest standards of medical care, or cleaning, or whatever. But what I also noticed was that they were doing the very best they could. They don't have the best medicines, or equipment, or training. Later, I heard people back in Australia saying what 'those people in Samoa' should have known and should have done. In that split-second of time we had to decide to do something, in the face of the wave, maybe there is something we might have done differently. I don't know what, but some people think they know. I just say that everyone did the best they could. That holds us together, even though it washed us apart. And it should hold the rest of us together in the face of all life's adversities. People are doing the best they can, and if we want to help them we can encourage and build on that, not try to bring them down.

Surprised by goodness: The last thing I want to mention is the most important, and it is something I have needed to reflect upon at great length. All through these weeks, I have been continually astonished at the kindness of people all around me.The fact is, it constantly reduces me to tears. People have sent us gifts; people who did not know us at all turned up at the hospital to ask if they could help us in any way; people who in fact had lost relatives or whose villages were damaged were right there caring for us! At home, government people have been so kind, and swept way bureaucratic difficulties to make things happen for us. So many people have sent messages, gifts and assured us of their prayers.

The troubling question is, and this is the aspect of 'tension' in this: Why is this surprising? Why am I 'blown away' by human goodness? (I use this term by choice, because this is all a part of this experience.)

One reason for all this, I am sure, has to do with an aspect of Christian spirituality which in fact thinks very poorly of humankind. It is because we start reading our Bibles at Genesis chapter 3: our theology begins with the idea of 'the Fall'.
Our theology begins with sin, brokenness, fall. We all know the need for redemption. So we begin with the fact of sin.

I have for many years criticized this aspect of  our spirituality. It is unbiblical. But I had not known just how deeply ingrained this is, into my very being, until all my defences were washed away.

That is why I have been overwhelmed by a tide of human kindness.
I do not deserve any of this. What I have seen in astonishing ways is the inherent beauty of people, made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1. 26).

The wave has brought me home into the human family, the family of God's people: good people. Yes, sure, we all still do nasty and mean things at times. But inherent in us all is the goodness of God.That's a tension that must be resolved in living. We either live into the nastiness or we live into the goodness, of ourselves and each other. We're in this together too.

5 thoughts on “After the tsunami: 2. What the wave brought me

  1. Thank you Frank, once again you have revealed some very profound issues within our traditional theology. Why indeed are we surprised by goodness. I have been thinking a lot about this issue over the past months, particularly given the theological context I was working in. The lectionary included Genesis 2 some weeks ago and I had to speak on it. I had found Parker Palmer’s reflections on this most helpful. Take care and God Bless.

  2. Cheers, Carolyn: I wonder if you could share some of the insights from Parker Palmer. I find lots of people quote him, and since he is such an insightful guy I’m never sure exactly what is being referred to. Give us some more detail …

  3. Thanks Frank. Putting words to the indescribable, you have opened a door to we who are “outside the journey.” Words and experience, when they come together, aid the journey of healing and hope. Blessings…

  4. May we all focus more on the inherent goodness (God-like-ness) of people and less on our falleness. And may we continue to celebrate people doing their best rather bemoaning the inevitable imprefection of their efforts.
    A thought from the Jerusalem Talmud: Every person must render an account before God of all the good things the beheld in life and did not enjoy.
    Thanks Frank.

  5. Thank you Frank for the clarity of your reflections.We have thought about all of you and prayed for you a lot. I/we had a personal faith tsunami in 1969 with a health issue. We had to grapple with what kind of a God we serve and whether it is possible to make sense of life’s tragedies. We came to the conclusion that there are no explanations of life sometimes- that it was foolish of us to try, but that God was and has been with us in the worst of the painful experiences. We have not been in the sea like you and Merilyn and Felicity. We cannot compare with you! Our prayer is that in experiencing the love and goodness of people you/we will in some tiny measure “feel” God. However I’m not sure that God is always able to be felt and experienced when we are in the worst of it.

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