This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific is working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment’s notice to the aid of the victims.
I have a love-hate relationship with images. I’ve written about them before, in a more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami or hurricane in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.
Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating event of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan’s northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.
My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. They live in our houses, they celebrate holidays with us, come to parties with us, share meals and laughs. They become family.
We’re saying good-bye to this year’s Japanese interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.
But I’m not sure it will be so celebratory.
As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooded the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.
I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I’m not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I’m only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.
So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock–misplaced because the horror is not ours.
I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I’m turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.
I can do nothing else.