Sunday, March 13, 2011

But awe is present in these events, too

Queen Maya Devi giving birth to the
Prince Siddharta, the future Buddha.
Sculpture from Nepal, in the
Musee Guimet, Paris
“Japan has moved eight feet,” I say.  And, “the Earth moved four inches.”  I do not say, “Thousands of people are dead.  Millions of people’s lives have been completely disrupted and will never be the same in any way.  Your lives, all our lives, will be different than we thought they would be ecologically, economically, forever.”

I do not believe in raising princes, but I cannot figure out how to tell them the truth.

I know about theories of child development.  I know these particular children, my children.  They are four and seven years old.  What they know about Japan – animé, that their uncle lived there for a semester abroad, that Mama visited as a teenager and stayed in a house with a view of Mt. Fuji – is all fantasy and theory.  Not real.  My four year old looks at a slideshow about the disaster with me and chortles with a kind of glee at the destruction.  “No, it isn’t really funny,” I say gently.  “All those houses and cars might have people in them,” I try.  “Well, I want to see the pictures, but not have anyone get hurt,” he says, with the air of someone offering a reasonable compromise.

How can I make something so far away concrete and therefore comprehensible to a four year old?  How can I explain something so vast and incomprehensively complex to the black and white, right versus wrong sensibility of a seven year old?  He needs to believe that good will always defeat evil, because his own mean and aggressive impulses so often seem stronger to him than his ability to reason and his desire to show caring and compassion.

My own and others’ feelings of grief and sadness and fear wash over me this morning like the tsunamis rushed the beaches and towns.  I, too, struggle to grasp the enormity and reality of what has happened far, far away, even though I am long past the concrete stage of human development.  So these waves are (also like the tsunamis) unpredictable and quickly over, leaving tumbled thoughts and empty spaces behind.  I see my friends and colleagues post “thinking of the people in Japan,” and “so grateful my cousin/colleague/friend in Hawaii is safe” on-line. It is tempting to try to fill the empty, chaotic places left by this event in my heart with similarly facile, easy expressions of gratitude for the well-being that I did nothing to deserve.  Or at least, to put on that face in public.  But I suspect that those friends and colleagues might be masking some uneasily submerged anxiety.  Like me, they may be wishing to hold on to the insular, falsely comforting sense that there’s nothing wrong here

Instead, I take a deep breath and try for something deeper, something more whole.  I want to be really grateful today that my family has a safe place to stay.  That our car runs.  That there is food in the stores to buy, gas to pump, that we mostly have the money to pay for these things.  That when we are sick or hurt we can go to the doctor or hospital to be cared for, and even have medical insurance to pay for some of the cost.  That when someone dies we have the time and resources to mourn them.  That my children have enough toys to fight over (morning, noon, and night.)  That even our worst fears and secrets are for the most part problems of abundance, rather than scarcity or abundance.

I want to be grateful today that I have so many choices. 

I want to recognize that because I was born and live and parent in this particular place and time, through no fault or virtue of my own, I have one very particular choice: the choice between surrendering to despair or to awe.  When we look at the pictures and hear the numbers and imagine the pain, despair is present.  But awe is present in these events, too.  How can an entire island nation move eight feet?  How can the earth shift on its’ axis four inches?

I want my children to know that there is suffering in the world, so they are ready for suffering when it comes (as it will, one way or another) to them.  But they have to understand it in small ways in their own bodies and minds and spirits before they will be able to understand it on the scale of a catastrophic disaster.  They have to learn to show compassion to themselves and each other and their always imperfect parents before it will make any sense to them to practice compassion on a global scale.

I forgive myself for my smallness and inability to hold awareness of the suffering far away and my own grief and sorrow for more than a few brief moments at a time.  Like my children, I have so much to do.  For now, I let the kids go, to be in their own concrete, righteous world.  I nurse the baby, and let her catch my few tears.  She is young enough to simply let all of this grief, awe, and busyness be.


  1. "Well, I want to see the pictures, but not have anyone get hurt"

    I'll bet a lot of adults feel this way too, but just don't admit it, even to themselves.

  2. I think you're right, Barbara. The photos are amazing visuals for the power of the natural world. They make us feel small, which is a good feeling in a way because we ARE small, truly, in relation to the universe.