Finding Meaning in the Face of Menace

The Tsunami disaster has deeply touched every one of us. Not since "September 11" has such graphic and distressing footage flooded our television screens. For most of us we have not, in our lifetimes, witnessed such an awesome destruction of human life. Nor have we been involved in such a massive wave of compassionate assistance for a remote community. The generosity of Australians and many nations has been staggering; the grief remains overwhelming.

Many Aussies know these countries intimately, through their own personal experiences, and this only makes the impact greater. But even if you have not visited these communities, you can relate just because as humans we can imagine how it would be to lose family, community and friends. We can picture the fear and terror that these individuals faced. We feel it in our bodies; it shakes us to the core, much as our planet still shakes in the aftermath of the original earthquake.

The impact of the immense damage and suffering washed around the world like a second tidal wave. People were glued to their televisions for hour after hour, powerless to tear themselves away, shocked by the images, heartbroken by the loss of entire communities. And as the amateur footage of the first and second waves filtered through, shock was replaced by fear and numbness. No one could really believe what they were witnessing, like seeing a Hollywood Blockbuster but knowing there would be no gallant rescue or cheery ending.

As we watched and listened to the stories of suffering, we began to feel our own secondary trauma; and experience emotions we could not name. Some people "tuned out" to the events and disconnected from those around them as a way to cope with the enormity of it all. There is no right way or a wrong way to respond. All we can do to process our response is acknowledge our various reactions, discuss our feelings with others, limit our exposure to distressing images, and find ways to get involved.

However, it is my conviction that real relief will come through struggling to find meaning despite the incomprehensibility of this event. So, rather than focus on the individual impact, I would like to consider the larger scale implications we can derive from this experience.

Interacting with the Inexplicable

This Tsunami, being a naturally occurring event, requires us to take a different perspective than we would if this death and destruction had been caused by a human perpetrator.

Unlike recent tragedies brought about by war and terrorism, there is no one to hold accountable. So what are we to do with the waves of anger we feel? They cannot be easily expressed towards a tsunami!! We have no other choice but to channel our anger into something constructive - and hence the enormous outpouring of support from peoples the world over. Directing the powerful flood of emotion into something meaningful provides potent healing, for us and all those affected.

But without a tangible human villain, we cannot ease our minds with thoughts of restitution or compensation. We simply have to "take it on the chin". And actually, it seems we are quite good at "taking it on the chin" and getting on with what we can do; providing relief, support, money. Whilst we feel powerless over Mother Nature, we find solace and a deep sense of satisfaction in being able to get involved.

On Boxing Day, the rising ocean came ashore without warning, reminding us that our planet can be unpredictable and enormously powerful. We cannot calculate if and when it may strike again. This intensifies other elements of our grief, namely powerlessness and helplessness, and as a result we feel lost, confused and vulnerable. However, we already have an outlet for our reactions - we have something we can do - and when dealing with such massive loss it is always helpful to have something to do! Being constructive helps us regain a sense of control, purpose and meaning.

Out of Chaos we find Meaning

Interestingly, we are far more forgiving of Nature than we are of our own unpredictable (inner)-ecology. Global events over recent years have highlighted the capacity in our human nature for destruction and chaos. And as a global community we have been unfolding our reactions to the darkness of our human spirit. War and terrorism are symptoms of a great divide that exists in the world; and in response we have grown more polarized in ourselves and in our communities. But with human destruction it is easier to find targets for our anger; there are people to hold accountable (whether politicians or terrorists). On every side, communities were counting scalps! Yet, it is difficult to ascertain what good, if any, comes out of it all.

The tsunami arrived amidst this global angst and in its wake we have been afforded the opportunity to express immense care and compassion. In a time of ever-widening cultural divide, the tsunami encourages us to pull together across nations rather than remain alienated. And in a time filled with despair, hopelessness and powerlessness about world events, these waves of destruction have helped us locate our latent talent for transformation.

Now, I am no political commentator, but from a lay person's perspective it seems that the global conflict consuming our planet has gravitated around issues of religious difference and the impacts of unwanted colonization through capitalism.

How ironic then that this tsunami arrived at Christmas time, a purely Western Christian tradition, which sadly has been "colonized by consumerism" to the extent of losing almost all meaning in the community. So, at a time when many of us in western countries were bloated from our celebrations, this tidal wave struck out at a collection of largely non-westernized, non-Christian countries, and masterfully entreated us to re-discover the "true meaning of Christmas".

The relief effort allows us to reach deep within and express grander values. Through every dollar we donate we are giving a gift of love, support, compassion. And though it may sound corny, we are giving the gift of life to these communities. We have seen children openhandedly donating all their Christmas money to the relief effort; which cannot help be a powerful and unforgettable marker in any child's life. And companies are queuing up to give away their hundreds and millions - what a reprieve from the endless focus on profit for profits sake.

Whilst some may scoff at linking a freak natural disaster to our human strife, we cannot ignore the significance of the response that this Tsunami has unearthed. It has to have us questioning our values; we must be feeling the irony! Religious, spiritual, economic and racial tensions have been effortlessly cast aside in the wake of this catastrophe. It seems as though the average Australian has been aching to express this openhearted nature. Why must it take such adversity for us to share the riches of our human spirit?

And our riches run deep and wide. Our life here in Australia affords us the ability to be (overly) concerned with our own immediate needs and wants. We are one of the richest nations in the world and as a whole we struggle for nothing. We have water, food and housing in abundance. We live meaningful, productive lives. We survive on excess rather than scarcity.

The tsunami has made us put these concerns aside and respond selflessly to others. Not that I wish to promote selflessness alone. The outpouring of generosity we are currently seeing will not result in a sustainable relief effort unless we also remember it is ok to be concerned with our own needs and wants. With rebuilding expected to take up to 10 years, it is unlikely that the flow of aid will continue at the velocity with which it has begun. This circumstance may require that we develop an ongoing fluidity between interest in our own affairs and interest in those less fortunate than ourselves? That would make for a truly sustainable support program.

In response to the massive loss and destruction, we have reached down deep into our selves and pulled out all the best parts of being human. Will these values be enduring in our community, or for that matter in our corporations and Governments??

Terrible Tsunami

So, how can we honour the hundreds of thousands whose lives have been and will be lost? What can we draw on from our collective experience of the Tsunami? What does its energy recommend? Does it suggest that "radical change and reconstruction from ground up" is needed by our global community? Will this disaster become catalyst for a shift in social, economic and environmental attitudes? Or does the tsunami simply mirror our own unpredictable ecology? Is it time to face up to these parts of ourselves and to find more compassionate, creative ways to respond to the darkness within and without?

It seems we cannot rid ourselves of the darker, more destructive parts of human nature. Every decade has born witness to the havoc we wreak on ourselves. Perhaps it is time to "take it on the chin," suck in our anger and blame, and push out something more constructive, something that helps us contain the powerful forces that lurk beneath our surface.

There are potentially many meanings that can be taken from these events; it will most certainly mean different things to different individuals. But to explore and uncover the meaning this devastation holds for us personally and also as a community is the best survival method we can adopt; this will also help us determine how we can best express our energy, care and support throughout the times ahead.

Posted on 22 January 2005 in - Library - Grief and Loss - Trauma

Michelle McClintock

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