Did You Feel That?

There’s a 100 percent chance of an earthquake today. Though millions of persons may never experience an earthquake, they are very common occurrences on this planet. So today — somewhere — an earthquake will occur. — The United States Geological Survey

This week a most unusual thing happened: the East Coast “suffered” an earthquake registering 5.8 magnitude. This is unusual because earthquakes rarely happen here. The last one originating in Maryland was in 1990 and was a magnitude of 2.5, barely enough to rattle the windows. The last one in Virginia of any note was in 2003 and hit 4.5, somewhere in the median range of magnitude between zero and nine—nine being of epic, apocalyptic proportions, like the one that hit Sendai, Japan this year.
Nevertheless, the one that hit Washington, D.C. shortly after 1:51 pm on Tuesday, August 23, tipped over a couple of coffee cups and dropped a few stone blocks from the Washington Cathedral. That was the extent of the damage, but you wouldn’t have known it by the media firestorm that erupted within minutes. As Howard Kurtz, writing for The Daily Beast, pointed out, the Libyan rebels were closing in on Gaddafi (choose your spelling), certainly a significant event on the world stage, but here in Washington, the earthquake blew everything else off the screen. The Washington Post the next day featured a front-page story and photograph of three panic-stricken women apparently fleeing for their lives down Connecticut Avenue. The local news faucets featured “man-in-the-street” interviews round the clock of the generic type such as,  “I was in my office near the Capitol when the windows starting rattling. . . At first I thought it was a truck going by, then I thought we were being bombed, so I ran out of the building. . .” And so on. 
Some of us reacted differently. When a friend recounted how she had fled her building in terror and asked what I had done, I hesitated and then said, “Well, I grew up in California, so. . . .” I probably came off as insufferably smug, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal. For me the interest is two-fold: how rare earthquakes are in this region and how much people overreacted. No doubt the two are linked. I checked the U. S. Geological Survey online tonight and found that there were dozens of earthquakes all over California today, all up the coast to Washington State, with Alaska’s Aleutian Islands pocked with many also, most of them over 4.5 magnitude. I’m fairly certain none of them got more than a passing notice in the media.
This week alone Vanuatu took nine earthquakes in one day between 5.0 – 7.0. An earthquake with a magnitude of 7 shows up in red on the USGS website as “significant.”  The Vanuatuans had three days in a row of such tremors, then they took a day off, and resumed with vigor, finishing out the week with enough earthquakes of significance to last Maryland for three centuries at least. You’re wondering where Vanuatu is, I bet. I looked it up on the map thoughtfully provided on the website and found that it’s a couple of dots several hundred miles off the northeast coast of Australia. I don’t know if anybody lives there but if they do they probably have other things to worry about besides their lawn chairs tipping over. 
Scanning a list of earthquakes world-wide so far this year (1,747 between 5 and 5.9 alone) one place appeared with alarming frequency, an area referred to as “east of Honshu, Japan.” That’s the fault line that slipped and sent a 23-foot tsunami into Sendai and other towns in the Honshu prefecture in March, with the death toll unofficially at 10,000. It makes the list more than any other place, but there are several other hot spots around the Pacific Rim that are offering some tough competition for first.   
I saw video shot in a grocery store in Japan during that devastating quake. Customers do not scream or run, instead, they steady the grocery shelves and as the camera vibrates with the tremors, they bend down to begin to clean up the mess. I guess it’s all about what one gets used to. 
As a species humans are wonderfully adaptable. Drop us into a wretched situation and within days, sometimes hours, we will have figured out a way to cope. But coping as a mechanism for dealing with the unexpected seems to vary from culture to culture. For example, cultures that emphasize the community over the individual often pull together more quickly in crises than cultures where individualism is the priority. So Japan, high on the collectivistic scale, handles these situations of genuine devastation and horror with more patience and equanimity than we in the US (top of the list in individualism worldwide) seem to do. They’ve certainly had more practice. On the other hand, the natives of Joplin, Missouri, hit with a tornado on May 22 that killed 153, a record number of tornado-related deaths in many years, bore up resolutely under the strain and opened their schools on time this August, one of them in an abandoned former big-box store. 
It’s tempting to indulge in generalizations about these things, especially those relating to cultural differences. But here is a truth, one that I hold as self-evident, that occurred to me as I reflected on our “all-earthquake-all-the-time” mentality. The American media, especially in the major markets, is addicted to drama and that message seeps into our unconscious to the point that we find danger everywhere. In fact, we seem to revel in our manufactured paranoia. Paul Watzlawick, a leading psychiatric researcher at Stanford for many years, says “Any idea, when firmly held, nurtured, and cultivated, will eventually create its own reality (The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious, 57).” We seem to be living in what Gever Tulley calls a culture of “dangerism.” Since perception is so often reality, we have to respect the fears of others, however silly they might seem to us. But we don’t have to share them. I’m opting for an attitude that says by God’s grace we’ll endure whatever happens, we’ll try not to whine about it, and we’ll help one another. A lot of people, no doubt, will do without the first phrase while admirably living up to the other two. Personally, I’m hoping that more of us who believe in God’s grace can exemplify the courage of that modest group. 

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