The Crippling Burden of Fear: Reflections on Japan’s Tragedy

As you will see if you are not Google Reading (or email subscribing), I’ve added a new feature on my sidebar, one I’ll update on a regular basis depending on what I’m currently reading. Because I tend to keep a bookmark in multiple books at a time (I’ve never been the girl who packs too many clothes for vacation because she doesn’t know what “mood” she’ll be in each day; I’ve always been the girl who packs too many books.), some of the books on this list will stay there a lot longer than others. For instance, you’ll notice that two of the books are classics, and they are indeed numbers 2 and 3 in my 12 Classics project. So they will likely stay there longer than the other three, one of which I actually did already finish last night.

Tonight’s reading pleasure drew me into what has so far been a fantastic novel, told from the perspective of a dog. I absolutely promise it’s not cheesy at all. (And by the way, why nobody recommends these kinds of novels to me, I will never know – come on, people. You know I love dogs.)

The book in question is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. This is one of those books on the cover of which it is necessary to include the words A Novel in lieu of a subtitle, lest potential readers mistake it for a memoir or some other nonfiction book that would be impossibly boring (like a how-to manual explaining the particulars of actually racing in the rain). Given that it is a novel, though, the title is rather clever, and the book itself is certainly engaging. I was tipped off to its existence by the NPR Books Facebook page, which has been a book-recommendation enlightenment, to say the least.

So this afternoon I was thinking about a specific issue I wanted to flesh out in writing. I decided to put it on the back burner for a few hours, but when the substance of this very issue presented itself in the pages of the book I picked up tonight, I decided it was time to get the thought out.

Here is the quote from The Art of Racing in the Rain that goes so well with the thoughts I was chewing on earlier today:

The true hero is flawed. The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles…in order to triumph. A hero without a flaw is of no interest to the audience or the universe…

So this afternoon I was thinking (as everyone has been the past three days) of Japan. I watched a really horrifying video of the tsunami waters rising to unbelievable depths in a matter of minutes.

We’ve all heard of floodwaters so strong they engulf everything in their path as they rage along their fated course, right? But I bet not as many of us have witnessed such a terrible event in person, and I bet even fewer of us have stopped to comprehend what this really means.

For instance, when I have heard statements like this in the past, I’ve merely imagined something akin (but perhaps on a lesser scale) to what I figure the biblical flood would’ve been like – a basic submerging and washing out of everything (or most things) visible. Houses submerged. Cars submerged. Multiple-storied buildings perhaps half or partially submerged. The usual flooded basements and underground dwellings and, in especially tragic circumstances, some truly ruinous above-ground damage.

But, whether consciously or unconsciously, and maybe as a result of my lack of experience with or exposure to truly disastrous natural occurrences, my mind has always imagined scenarios in which everything stays where it is. Everything gets sort of swallowed up by these raging waters, and yes, things get ruined, but everything stays put.

But that is not at all what unfolded before my eyes during this horrific, six-minute video of the tsunami in Japan. The obvious things were swept along with the waters – anything untethered or freestanding fell victim. But so did bigger, heavier things, like giant trucks and 15-passenger vans. This tsunami water was a different animal entirely, with a current so strong it was not only engulfing and sweeping away these less than rooted things – it was quite literally having its way with the town through which it surged.

I watched as the perspective of the camera turned toward a shop with some displays still hanging in its windows. The camera held steady on the spectacle as the water effortlessly opened the doors of this shop and swirled inside, effectively destroying everything in those front windows, of course, along with any other inventory that would’ve been in there.

Fittingly, the most disconcerting and climactic event happened during the last 30 seconds of this film, during which an entire building – think, community center, rec center, some sort of public place of gathering or business of some kind, this huge building – suddenly detached itself from the ground – intact, foundation and all – and floated on top of the floodwaters like nothing more trivial than a child’s dollhouse. I watched for a few more seconds as the tide carried it in the same path as everything else, and I thought, What happens when it reaches a tight spot it can’t fit through? It’s just going to crash into something – forcefully!

The camera, for the briefest of seconds before shutting off, then trained its eye on a group of spectators on the other side of these torrential waters, standing and staring as their entire lives were literally uprooted and carried away before their very eyes. That is when the video ended, and I was left with the indelible memory of a) this enormous building floating along purposefully and swiftly – someone’s livelihood, most likely – sure to meet a crashing doom with someone else’s livelihood not far down the road; and b) this group of stranded, desolate people who must be wondering what the hell they’re supposed to do now.

And I uttered a prayer for them and for everyone in Japan (and everyone worldwide) who has been affected by this horrible, awful catastrophe, this “natural” disaster that is at once everything that defines natural but also completely and incredibly and terrifyingly unnatural at the exact same time. And then the next prayer I uttered, before my conscience could keep me from it, was, selfishly, for myself.

And then a very interesting (and revealing) conversation with the Holy Spirit (or God, or Jesus, or whichever member of the Trinity you’re most comfortable imagining conversations with) ensued (my thoughts in italics; divine response in parentheses):

God, please keep me from encounters of such disaster in my life.
(My word, what a selfish prayer. You’d better amend that, Audra.)
Okay. God, I apologize for my fear. But in the last five years of my life, it seems like the number of “natural” disasters has increased dramatically over anything I can ever remember happening at any other time in my life, and I guess I just feel like there’s nowhere to run; there’s nowhere to hide, and eventually, if they keep up at this rate, I’m going to end up being personally affected in a very deep and scarring and hurtful way. And I’d like to avoid that.

(Wow. Well, nice job staying self-involved. But consider this: When you moved into your neighborhood and people asked you if you feared for your life or your personal safety, you often flippantly answered, “If God deems it my time to leave this earth, he’ll take me whether I’m in the suburbs or the desert or the heart of the city.”)
Yes. What’s your point?
(Well, you have arrogantly boasted of your trust in the Father when it comes to the matter of your death.)
Yes. Again, your point?

(Well, what of your trust in the Father when it comes to your life?)

It was at this point that I realized that my fear is not death. In the middle of the United States, here in Kansas City or down in Oklahoma City, where I spent seven years of my post-high-school life, the climate-related disasters are usually of the cyclonic variety. I realized that I have no fear of being killed by a tornado. If that’s the way I’m going to go, so be it. Death holds no power over me.

My fear, however, is of living through a natural disaster. My fear is of survival. My fear is of rebuilding. Of things not being the same. Of financial uncertainty and insurance nightmares and the loss of material objects that seem crucial to my existence – my car, the shelter over my head, my tax papers, my means of identification – of proving that I am who I say I am. Worse than this, my fears are of surviving alone – losing my family, my friends, my place of employment – heck, even my dog.

I guess what I was really praying for when I pleaded, Don’t let disaster come to me was, Don’t test my strength of character. I like to believe that I have a strong and independent personality. But I don’t want to be put in a situation where I have to find out for sure. Because what I’m really afraid of? Is that I have no reserves. No tough to “get going” when the going gets tough. No resourcefulness, no deeply buried strength or independence or integrity. No tenacity.

So, in the hours since I had this revelation, my prayer has changed once again to something more earnest and more frightening (for how much trust it requires): Take my fear, my weakness, my instability. Help me be not afraid.

During one of my family’s many hospital vigils near the end of my grandmother’s life, my aunt Leigh and I were taking our turn sitting with my grandma by her bed. My grandma squeezed my hand and whispered so softly that we  both had to lean in to hear her, “I’m afraid.”

And my aunt Leigh, without missing a beat, squeezed her other hand in return and said gently, “Do not be afraid. Do you know how many times the Bible tells us not to be afraid?” Slight pause while my grandma shook her head. Leigh continued, “365 times. That’s one for every day of the year.”

Easier said than done, that’s for sure. But part of my Lenten commitment this year is to learn to be present; to empathize; to help shoulder some of the very heavy burdens that others less fortunate than I are being forced to bear.

Because, as my friend Danielle said the other day, “That’s what we’re all here for anyway, isn’t it? To help each other.”



Filed under bloggy, sentimental

8 responses to “The Crippling Burden of Fear: Reflections on Japan’s Tragedy

  1. Reese

    I, too, am quite selfish. Because at least if you’re dead, you don’t have to live with the results of the disaster. Lately it’s been a fear of my family or Jordan dying and wondering how I would live through that. But that’s when I feel so comforted in knowing that God would be with me through anything, and he can’t die or go away. I know it sounds cliche and easier said than done, but that thought does bring me comfort. Good thoughts. Liked the post.

    • Reese, you are way ahead of me. Good for you. And yes, those thoughts on being dead were what I was feeling exactly. It’s the easy way out. :) Ah, life. How complex and ridiculous, eh? Thanks for contemplating with me. :)

  2. My comment didn’t post the first but I had stated, very well said. I too find myself in worship and then adding a ‘me’ prayer. ‘Please keep ‘me’ and my family together and in tact without incapacity.’ I truly pray this from time to time — what could be more selfish. It is my biggest fear.

    As for books, I typically have three in reading at one time too. FYI, have you read ‘The Hunger Game’ series? (Did I already ask you this). It is YA but the impact it makes should have it required reading in high school.

    • FW, your earlier comment did come through, but I found it in my spam! Not sure why. Since you re-posted, I went ahead and called it not spam but then deleted it. I suppose this is probably a prayer we have all prayed at one time or other. Selfish, maybe. But also human, sounds like. I have not read the Hunger Games series. You are the third person to recommend them to me, which I find odd, because I don’t usually read YA fiction, but I guess I will have to check them out! I’ll let you know what I think.

  3. b longfellow

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughtful reflections. I wouldn’t have realized this except for your promptings, but I too have always imagined – rather abstractly – that the Biblical flood left all things buried, including those (wicked) folk who declined entering the ark. I’ve imagined them gasping water instead of air, rather than being tossed and slammed violently amongst their possessions with no place to set their feet (for a view of this water-tossed image as redemptive, see Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”).

    And I have found myself conveniently (intentionally) avoiding thoughts of the horrifying events the Japanese people are enduring. I suspect that subconsciously I want both to keep my conscience from being engaged and to keep from being humbled by the powerlessness which such events force me to recognize. An essay we read in class this week examines “what makes us moral.” The author (Jeffrey Kluger) points out how much easier it is for us to avoid acts of compassion the further away the suffering subjects are from our own geography. I have a long way to go with this; I’ve even found myself in the habit of avoiding eye contact with the homeless sign-flyers at various intersections in the city.

    Somewhat shamefully, I’ve seen that my comments on your posts are usually more about myself than your writing (can we just say your writing is an excellent catalyst for reflection?). That said, my first thought was to recommend a short story told from the perspective of a dog: “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” by Dave Eggers.

    • Brian,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and don’t ever feel bad for doing so! It is extremely flattering to me that my stuff gets your wheels turning, so I don’t care whether you do or do not comment about the technical side of what I’ve written. I just love your feedback, period.

      I’ve never read anything by Flannery O’Connor. Second time the name has come up in my circle in the last week, though, so I guess I’ll have to go find something.

      The Jeffrey Kluger essay sounds right on the money. Out of sight, out of mind mentality, really. I think it also has to do with relational closeness to the situation. Obviously someone who has personal ties to certain geographical locations will feel a stronger tug on the heartstrings than those of us to whom they are merely “places on a map.” I struggle with this too, and a lot. I remind myself that I am living a pretty charmed and comfortable life over here, and I constantly struggle with how to reconcile that fact with the contrast of others’ lives. It’s not a comfortable or easy train of thought to follow. And I certainly haven’t found a fix yet for myself.

      The Dave Eggers short story sounds incredibly sad! But you’ve piqued my interest enough for me to want to check it out, so thanks. :)

  4. Pssst, your old email is deleted. Where do I email you now? You know where to find me. ;-) Happy FWFD of the WEEEEEK! Hope your’s is randomly surprising in a wonderful way.

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