Watching the live videos, listening to the news updates, and reading about the extent of destruction, loss of life, and potential nuclear catastrophe that happened in Japan last year (2011) has been overwhelming, disturbing, and frightening. While we have considerable empathy for the Japanese people—particularly our colleagues who are members of the Japanese Peer Support Association—we also live on an island that is in close proximity to a major earthquake fault line, and is also open to massive waves of water rolling across the Pacific Ocean.
Our local TV-stations reinforced this anxiety by posing different scenarios about what might happen in our city should the earth shift. Local stores advertised specials for “earthquake preparedness kits;” and maps appeared in the newspaper showing which of our neighbourhoods would be underwater from the upheaval of the mighty Pacific.
The possibility that Mother Nature could unleash yet another destructive force similar to the one that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand as well as many cities in Japan and that would place my family, my loved ones, my friends and thousands of others in jeopardy is not exactly a confidence building thought. But at the same time such anxiety leads to finding ways to make meaning of the events and cleanse the toxic impact such news has on my emotional, physical and spiritual well-being.
Over the years, one of the most productive ways I’ve discovered for de-stressing and restoring my understanding of the world and my role in it, is to reflect on what I’m learning as a result of current events or life circumstances, and identify life themes that I can use to improve my learning and strengthen my sense of personal wisdom.
Here are four of the principles I’ve learned (or re-learned) so far as a result of recent world events. These may be different from what other Peer Resources Network members have learned, but I hope that the method (reflecting on what you’ve learned), and the specifics of the four principles can help others who may also be struggling with the emotional, physical and spiritual impact of recent events.
1. We are stewards of the Earth. We may not be able to tame the most significant and overpowering phenomena that Mother Earth sends our way, but we can use the experience, no matter how horrifying or devastating, to consider how we can make the Earth a better place to live. Whether such consideration leads to working on our own development, cooperating with others, or leading a nation, we can create our own “bucket list” of what matters most to us, what we want our legacy to be, and what we can do to “make it so.”
Canadian astronaut Julie Payette described the responsibility for stewardship of our planet this way: “The Earth is absolutely magnificent when seen from space. It sparkles like a jewel against a background of infinite space. Its earth tones and blue and white colours take your breath away. When I saw the Earth from high up, I became more aware of how precious our planet is, that it supports seven billion human beings and countless plant and animal species, and that it is the only place we know of in the universe (at least for the time being) where such an abundance of life is possible. The Earth is the only known place in the universe that can support life. It is up to us to take care of it.”
And before space travel was even possible Canadian philosopher and futurist
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”
2. We are all members of the same tribe. Technology has given us an unprecedented ability to learn about life-threatening events around the globe, 24-hours a day. Even if we are not directly in the zone or path of the destruction, our separation from others on the planet has become so slim as a result of global business practices and Internet communication that we are bound to have friends, relatives, or colleagues impacted directly by the catastrophe.
While technology may contribute to increased opportunity for anxiety, it also contributes to increased opportunity to experience empathy. Learning and re-learning what it’s like to be in the shoes of others is the glue that holds us together while celebrating our diversity. It is our way of reaching out, taking cooperative action, and demonstrating our compassion.
German-born, American physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) recognized our connection with each other this way: “Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labors of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.”
3. We are transcendent beings. One of the toughest life lessons I’ve had to learn is that no matter how much I might want to, the world is mostly filled with things I cannot control. And I thought that once I had learned this lesson I would be free from the heartache, despair, and grief that often accompanies circumstances beyond my control. Instead I learned that these deeply experienced and agonizing feelings were part of a natural order, a logical consequence of being human regardless of whether or not I held the tiller.
Yet we always have the ability to transcend the darkest dungeon that these feelings create. American author Napoleon Hill (1883-1970), pointed this out in his best-selling book, Think and Grow Rich, when he said: “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
Each of us when confronted by adversity faces a fork in the road: one path can lead to a lifetime of trauma, stress, and dysfunction, and the other path can lead to growth, learning, and a purpose-driven life. Which path we choose is primarily influenced not only by our values, character, but also by our attitude.
While we cannot control the significant natural forces of the Earth, and we will often experience some dark days or months as a natural reaction, we have within us the ability to rise, to transcend and grow stronger as a result of our attitude.
Charles Swindoll, an American clergyman, writer and grandfather, and one of creators of personal success philosophy said: “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home.
“The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.… I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent how I react to it.”
4. We must never be too late to give or receive a hug. North American media coverage of the events in Japan emphasized the doom and despair of destruction, the death-toll, and radiation leaks. In addition, Western media focused on a particularly North American perspective: the degree of stoicism shown by the Japanese people as a way of coping with the trauma; and the role of government in taking action (or not taking action) to help the people.
Yet my experience with the members of the Japanese Peer Support Association who have visited here often, as well as reports directly from bloggers in Japan portray a different picture. Western media has interpreted a ‘stoic’ posture as as either a lack of or a high degree of control of feelings or emotions. Reporters have assumed that for each Japanese citizen there is a cauldron of anxiety just below the surface that is being held in check by the stoic appearance.
While the Japanese people may naturally experience distress and anxiety, their stoicism is in reality more accurately a reflection of the high value they place on honor. What the Japanese deeply understand—and does not have the same representation in Western culture—is that what people do in public and how they treat their neighbours reflects on each of them as individuals, on their community, and their nation. To lose honor, unlike the loss of a home or possession, is something that is almost impossible to regain. But honor in Japan includes providing aid and comfort to others as evidenced in the accompanying photo which shows two survivors in holding each other.
While Western press coverage has focused on the devastation, bloggers in Japan have been providing a more in-depth description of what is happening on a personal, local level. The following entries detail the peer relationships and the distribution of hugs in one of the areas dramatically impacted by the 9.0 earthquake. The blog excerpts which follow, show how the deeply-held characteristic of honor in Japan lends itself more to helping others and, during disasters, finding ways to be of service to others.
“Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to have wonderful friends who are helping me. We share supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories.
“There has been no looting, no pushing in lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an earthquake strikes. People keep saying, ‘Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another.’
“Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens are constant and helicopters pass overhead often. During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out a sign so people can come to fill up their jugs and buckets.
“I come back to my shack to check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, no.
“Evacuation shelters are all over every city. Food, water, and heat are there, although very limited. Mats and blankets, again in short supply, are also there. People are collecting wood from damaged buildings and making fires for heating and cooking. Volunteers welcome evacuees and help in whatever way they can. Firefighters and policemen carry the old and injured into shelters on their backs. And shelters have designated leaders to head meetings and make decisions.
“People in the shelters are supporting one another. They massage each others’ legs and shoulders, sit in close circles for human contact, read stories to kids, or simply hold hands. They are grateful for whatever goodness comes their way. ‘I feel so fortunate. We are able to eat at least once a day,’ one woman said.
“Today one young able man, who was helping his parents clean up the remains of their home, was called into the reserves. He had no choice, but was not happy about this turn of events. But his mother said, ‘We need him here, of course, but his service to others, to many, is more important than for only us.’
“During the day people go out to search for missing family members. TV crews are there, of course, and often stop people for interviews. Emotional wounds are deep and vast. People’s intense efforts to contain grief is painful to witness. No overt wailing. But tears and silence everywhere.
“‘Shigata ga nai’ is a Japanese expression that roughly translated means, ‘It cannot be helped.’ It also implies a sense of enduring what is happening and of making the best of whatever situation you are in. That concept is an integral part of everyday life here, not only now, but always. This emergency situation is surely one of ‘shigata ga nai’. And everywhere people are saying, ‘We have to soldier on. There is no other way.’” (Excerpts from Anne Thomas’ blog at Ode Magazine.)
Honor is a characteristic not often seen and rarely practiced in North America. It was clearly missing in post-catastrophe reactions during Katrina where the disaster became an opportunity for many people to loot businesses and homes. In addition, when disaster strikes in North America considerable effort is placed on identifying culprits and blaming or criticizing government for what it did or did not do.
Not so in Japan, although Western reporters constantly urged Japanese survivors to make comments about their government’s response. No other country has a disaster recovery infrastructure as sophisticated and organized as Japan’s. Instead of spending time and effort assigning blame, the Japanese and the 11,000 Canadians in Japan are busy helping each other, giving hugs where needed and providing concrete assistance to assure survival.
While the devastation to buildings in parts of Japan is extensive, Rebecca Solnit’s recent book on disasters around the world, concluded that the key factor for both the physical recovery and the healing of the human spirit during troubled times was peer-to-peer interaction. Her analysis of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed most of San Francisco provides a remarkable and little told story about how peer-to-peer support not only helped the city to quickly recover from the fires, explosions, and rubble, but to become an even greater financial and cultural mecca.
The character of a nation such as Japan is strongly peer- and elder-based. And while our hearts are with the people of Japan, we know they have the capacity, the determination, the experience, and the character to re-build in a way that will make them stronger than ever.
When people work together and establish a culture of mutual support—as evidenced by contemporary approaches to peer assistance, mentoring and coaching—we give ourselves the spiritual tools to enable us to survive and flourish a variety of difficult events and circumstances.
I’d like to hear from other Spirit Mentor readers as to what lessons they have been learning from the events in Haiti, Chile, Western China, New Zealand and Japan.
If you’d like help the people of Japan with your heart, brain or bank account, visit this blog entry from the Huffington Post for legitimate and credible opportunities. (Unfortunately, many fake social media entries have been distributed that contain links to scam-charity websites.)
If you’d like to help the New Zealand Red Cross provide assistance for the February 22 earthquake in Christchurch, go to their 2011 Earthquake Appeal.
Bonanno, G.A. (2009). The other side of sadness: What the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss. New York: Basic Books. This book is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.co.uk
Solnit, R. (2009). A paradise built in hell: Extraordinary communities that arise in disasters. New York: Viking Adult (Penguin Group). This book is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.co.uk
Winchester, S. (2005). A crack in the edge of the world: America and the great California earthquake of 1906. New York: HarperCollins. This book is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.co.uk