Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We Survived the Earthquake

On the whole, it really wasn't a big deal.

In fact, I hope that the world doesn't think that we East Coast Americans are insensitive if we indulge in a bit of a collective laugh at ourselves.

We know that natural disasters can be among the hardest burdens that people have to endure. We have mourned natural and man made catastrophes, and some of us have been touched by them directly. We also know that this 5.9 earthquake that was centered in Eastern Virginia and that shook the East Coast from New York to Georgia did some damage to structures that are not built to withstand earthquakes. Large seismic events are not common in this part of the country. This was the largest earthquake here in over a century.

The jokes we're making are really on ourselves. For many of us, who have never experienced anything like this, it was an utterly peculiar event. Even though for most of us the damage was limited to a spilled cup of coffee or a few nicknacks falling off the shelves, it was an unsettling moment, or at the very least it was a strange moment. To some extent, our laughter is motivated by a sense of relief.

It is also and perhaps primarily the sheer oddness of it all. Many had no idea it was an earthquake until after it was over, and the result was some very funny speculations running rapidly through people's minds about what the heck was happening. I was standing in the living room with John Paul and Eileen was in the bedroom. The girls were outside. We have been dealing with a mouse problem (see previous post), and so our attention has been particularly attuned to listening for sounds of mice or mousetraps.

Suddenly there was this rumbling and my first thought was, of course, "Mouse? What kind of mouse is this?" I had a flash image of thousands of elephant-like mice running through the attic. John Paul, who was not facing me at the time, later told me that his first thought was that "Dad must be mad at the computer and is stomping around" (a fine example I set for my son). In the bedroom, Eileen's first thought was the same! Well, if you read this blog you're not surprised; you know how I lose my temper at technology.

Then my mind veered in another direction. Even though we live in a small country town, we are not so far from Washington, D.C. We know people who heard the sounds and saw the fires at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 (and in New York, for that matter). So a thought and images went through my mind that were like the same ones that flashed through the minds of many people in Washington and Manhattan when they first felt the earthquake: "Bomb. Terrorists. Horror."

What does this say about the world we live in? An unusual and disturbing natural event occurs and among our first thoughts are memories and fears of human violence. Perhaps when bombs first fell from the sky on cities, people initially thought, "is it an earthquake?" But we have become accustomed to this. Now when the earth shakes, people think, "is it a war?" There is something here that merits further consideration.

But this feeling quickly passed and was followed by pure confusion; I wasn't sure what I was imagining and what was real. By this time the quake was nearly over. Then my wife burst into the living room and said with all the authority of someone who has lived in California, "That was an earthquake." And I must admit that my first inclination was to respond: you've got to be kidding! We don't have earthquakes in Virginia. But on second thought, it seemed the most plausible explanation.

We turned on the television and there was just the usual daytime TV. Where is the famous "Emergency Broadcast System?" I wondered. I briefly became a confused late 20th century man, thinking, "Wait, if it was real it would be on television, right?" Then the man of the third millennium awoke in me as I went to my laptop. What about Facebook? Even as I posted my querying status, the news feed was lighting up with others from New York to Georgia reporting the same experience. It was an earthquake.

We scooped TV! By the time the news was on the air, people had already posted links. There was something awe-fully significant about this moment. While the television news droned on in the background, another kind of earthquake was happening on the social media sites. Everyone was reporting in. And I realized that we are the media now. We hold mass communications power in our own hands. This is something new. Even newer than an earthquake on the East Coast.

Is this a good thing?

I don't know. I suppose that, like most human things, it will be as good or as bad as the use we make of it. The wheat and the weeds grow together.

One thing cannot be denied. It is a fact. We must understand it, judge it, master it, and use it as a tool in our search for the good.