A thousand or million things go through your mind when you’re facing catastrophe. If the catastrophe is as imminent as a tornado bearing down on you, you have to leap into a ditch or run to the cellar, seek cover until the threat of death has passed. When you stand up and wipe the mud and rain out of your eyes and stand there shivering in the rain and see that your house is gone and your car is upside down in the field across the way, you realize that you have escaped with your life and that your life didn’t consist of all the stuff you had in your house–but it felt like it did. Then, like the woman I met who had this exact experience, you spend months and months trying to recover. It isn’t the stuff you’re trying to recover, either–it’s your sense of self and safety.
In 1994 my husband and I were visiting California and were awakened around 4:30 a.m. by an earthquake which later came to be called the Northridge earthquake. As we stood in the doorway of our hotel room on galloping floors, I remember how shock and terror gave way to disbelief and then a stubborn determination to survive. “We can’t die in this earthquake,” I exclaimed, “we have too many kids!” I knew that wasn’t our day to die.
Having been raised by a father in law enforcement, I had a survival mentality even during that emergency. We dressed quickly, threw all our stuff in suitcases, and carefully made our way down shifting hallways to the car we had rented. “Always rent a car,” my dad would advise, “because a vehicle can be a shelter, a weapon, and a means of escape.” Good old dad, always there when you need him.
Unlike the other survivors who stood partially clothed in the parking lot, we had our wits about us and a means of escape. We ascertained quickly that there would be no water or food available any time soon, since all the power was out and the restaurants had only frozen food. We escaped in our rented car along fizzured highways and bridges that we later learned were officially closed. There was no one along the way to stop us. We drove south along the Pacific coast highway to stay with my old college roommate, the only person we knew in the state at the time. From her we learned that people who live in California keep water, blankets, and a flashlight in the trunk of their cars in case of earthquake, very much like people in tornado alley maintain a similar state of preparedness. We do this so that, in case of emergency, we will survive long enough to get our bearings.
Anyone who has had a psychology course has heard of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs theory. Maslow studied psychologically healthy people and researched the lives of exceptional people to identify traits common to those he called “self-actualized”–those who manifest and fulfill “the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Some theorists, such as evolutionary psychologist David Kendrick, have proposed improvements to Maslow’s hierarchy; others dismiss Maslow’s idea of a hierarchy, arguing that psychological growth is not linear or even always lasting. Even the most self-actualized human being, they say, can regress when his life, loved ones, or property are threatened.
Maslow knew that self-actualized people continue to need food, their health, and safety once they’ve become moral, creative, spontaneous, problem-solving realists. His point was, I think, that people need to have their physiological and safety needs met before they can address their needs for love, belonging, and esteem. We know that this is generally true. While cowering in the ditch with the tornado roaring overhead, I am not likely to be writing a poem, painting the scene, or solving any problem other than how to survive the storm. After I’ve survived and made sure my loved ones did, too, I will consider my long-term safety needs and begin to assess the property damage.
In Case of Emergency
When an emergency occurs or we are given terrible news, or something in our world shifts to threaten our survival, we find ourselves plummeting from zenith to nadir in short order. In my household when this happens, we often say “keep breathing,” a Buddhist reminder to be aware of and with our own breathing so that we will remain in the present rather than sacrificing the present moment for some imagined and feared future that may never come. During a crisis and for some time afterward, we treat ourselves as one should treat a sick person, for any event that has threatened our survival also makes us sick at heart. The Bible says that “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life,” (Proverbs 13:12). We have to take care of ourselves until we recover enough to eat fruit again.
When threatened, we take all the time we need to grieve what is threatened or has been lost or will be lost. Whether we grieve loss of life or limb or merely the loss of youth with each new wrinkle or gray hair, the loss is real. Accident, sickness, disease, aging, and catastrophe all remind us that we’re not actually in control of our lives or bodies, that things can go wrong that threaten our survival, and that even if we do survive we may not be healthy or secure or have enough resources. We may lose friends and family during the course of a crisis. We may never write another poem or paint another painting. I may not ever feel like playing the banjo again.
All Thy Breakers and Billows
When disaster is upon me, I feel overwhelmed, as if I could drown in it. Poets and mystics have expressed similar feelings during catastrophe, writing, “For You had cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows passed over me” (Jonah 2:3; Psalm 42:7). All your breakers and billows passed over me. Isn’t that how you feel when calamity comes? Like the gusts of a hurricane or the roiling of an earthquake, the threat makes us reel and tears us from our moorings.
Surviving past disasters has given me tools, chief among them that I know how to pay attention to my breath and to be in the present moment and be at peace. As silly as it may sound to have breathing as a skill or tool or art, once you’ve tried simply paying attention to your breath and being with your own breath, you know that it is, in fact, an art to simply breathe. Biological necessity? Of course; but it is also an art that can take a person very deep, like a tap root into the universe.
In an emergency, we need to remember to eat well and to stay hydrated. We need to take care of all the physiological needs Maslow identified as foundational, and if we suffer in any area, we can and must take steps to try to relieve the suffering. If disease, illness, or disability rob us of our ability to eat, drink, sleep, or eliminate, then we work at recovering, or we figure out how to die with dignity.
In an emergency, we’re unbalanced and unhinged and we need to find a resting place. We want things to return to normal–homeostasis, a place of rest. We can try to return to the old normal, or we build a new normal. When my daughter was dying and after she died, I found that having other children who needed to be fed and dressed, bathed and cared for in everyday, routine ways an anchor. No matter how turbulent my emotions were, the routine was the same. Conventions such as saying “good morning” to one another, fixing the pot of tea, clearing away the dinner dishes, and even paying the bills became small blessings. A person has to be very ill before they must stop doing those sorts of things.
One of the needs that Maslow didn’t identify in his early pyramid is spiritual needs. Later in life, Maslow talked and wrote more about our spiritual needs, but by that time his theory had become popular and the highest human need, that of spirituality, wasn’t added to his hierarchy. Nevertheless, we need hope, beauty, joy, and love in our lives, too; as spiritual beings we become sick at heart if these needs aren’t met. If every day is a prison without hope, beauty, joy, or love, then we’re not fully alive or fully human. People who live in the most abject poverty or with great suffering regularly transcend these through faith and the cultivation of spiritual characteristics.
When I was younger and less developed as a human being, when the breakers and billows overwhelmed me, all I could see was breakers and billows. It took spiritual growth and discipline to be able to see the blue sky through the waves, to taste the salt and say that it was good, and even to anticipate the possibility that death was imminent and feel calm and serene in the face of it.
No Coward Soul is Mine
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.
O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life–that in me has rest,
As I–undying Life–have Power in Thee!
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou–Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.
~ Emily Brontë