I Was Spared

Authored by Salvatore Folisi, and appeared in Vision Magazine, June 2010.

A week ago I was relaxing in my third story apartment preparing to hang a picture on the wall, when the earthquake came. It began as an increasingly rumbling movement of the entire building: the floor, the walls, and everything inside my apartment. Granted, I was hungover on this particular Sunday, but not nearly enough to account for convulsions of this sort. Feeling my whole world tremble and warble—as if the building was attempting to balance itself upon marbles of varying sizes—I quickly put down the framed photograph and instinctively grabbed onto the wall myself. At that moment, I truly felt helpless, unsure of what to do, fearing that the entire building would crumble and collapse with me inside it.

The quake lasted awhile, almost a minute—which is a long time when it comes to surfing your living room floor. When it was done, I still did not know what to do.

Should I run outside in case a larger quake comes?

Am I safe in here? 

What the hell is happening? 

I hadn’t heard any forecasts for earthquakes that day. Maybe I should’ve watched the weather more closely.
Just outside my door I could hear people coming out of their apartments and into the hallway. They were exclamatory and talkative, but did not appear to be leaving the building. As I am not a California native, this sort of thing was not normal to me. So I just stood there silently, in shock, not knowing what to expect next. 

Within a minute or two, a neighbor friend came down the hallway and called out my name, asking if I was okay. I opened the door to see her with another neighbor, beers in hand, smiling and chuckling—as if it were all some fun-loving prank they had played upon my Eastern-born innocence. 
Upon seeing my face aghast, they both reassured me that we would be okay. Earthquakes like this happen all the time, they reasoned. I need not worry. My friend’s consolation helped somewhat. The rest of the day passed, and a couple of hours later I hung the picture.

News reports later that day stated there had been a large earthquake, measuring 7.1 to 7.3 on the Richter scale, just south of the Mexican border near Tecate. Its rumblings had been felt as far as Los Angeles, and it had incurred two deaths as well as some slight structural damage to a few buildings in Mexico. A death of any sort, especially accidental, is a sad situation. Yet, all in all, for such a huge earthquake, no major structural damage had been done. 

The conclusion of this story brings me to events that have oc-curred over the past twenty-four hours on the other side of the planet—a similar story of an even smaller earthquake which has had much larger and devastating consequences. I first read the report last night on the internet before going to bed and it prompted me to drink another beer. 

In an area of Western China—actually the disenfranchised nation known as Tibet—an earthquake had just struck resulting in at least three hundred human deaths due to the demolishing of homes and buildings made of mud and wood. Perhaps the report was more poignant for me because I had just finished reading a book by the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan refugee of the Chinese invasion who subsequently spread the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism throughout the world. 

However, anytime I hear about events of mass destruction I become both saddened and angry. It also always makes me question the existence of God, this notion that there is some all-loving, all-knowing persona, force, or entity in the sky who is responsible for all that happens in this grand universe. 

It makes me wonder whether this God may indeed have some devil in him after all …

Recalling how terrified I felt when the earthquake hit my home in Southern California, I imagine the Tibetan people who probably felt the same terror when their earthquake came, but then actually experienced the literal fragmentation of their world, many of them buried in the rubble of buildings, squashed and suffocated to death, helplessly trapped beneath the weight of the homes they had trusted, the homes which had been their places of safety. I imagine people being maimed: bleeding, broken bodies stranded in the streets, in shock and horror, not knowing what to do. 

What’s worse is the fact that these people who I am imagining are real. As I write this story they are suffering and dying, and I am powerless to help them. It’s important to remember that the Tibetans are people just like you and me; they have skin, blood and bones, hearts and minds, identities and lives, dreams and a purpose upon this planet, just like us.

But for the past twenty-four hours many of them have been trapped under rubble, dying in agony, in hysterical horror—or perhaps in dignified surrender—helpless to counteract their fate.

Thinking about this makes me feel completely out of control. Heartbroken and furious all at once. And yet, somehow, I remain mute. Or am I muted by the forum and the policy of our culture to just report the news, with no real space or place in which to digest it, to make sense of it, to respond to it, to curse or condemn it, or to have any kind of relationship with it? I, we, all of us are more or less expected to just take it all in, all the reports of blood and mayhem, of tragedy and inconceivable human suffering, without doing or saying much of anything. 

This sometimes really sucks.

Of course, I am incomparably lucky just to be alive, just to have the privilege of writing these words. The earthquake which hit my home had no measurable consequence other than freaking me out for a few hours. I was spared the utter calamity of destruction, the utter desecration of physical mutilation, and the ultimate finality of death, while others halfway around the planet were not. 

It leaves me with so many questions: 

Why was I so fortunate while others were doomed? 

How can there be a God who would allow innocent people to be killed so mercilessly? 

Is this the same God to whom I pray? 

If so, how can I trust such a God? He or she may have a similar fate in mind for me …

Troubled by the fallout of the earthquake in Tibet, I’m now troubled by my questioning of God. If there is a God—yes, I am now officially questioning my “faith”—why does God do nothing to help humans when we most need him or her?
How can I continue to pray to a Creator who would arrange a life for his or her creations in which there is such monumental misery?

And how can I continue to be a happy person, focused on my own life, when I am aware of such massive human suffering continually occurring around the planet?

We, as a privileged modern culture, tend to remain emotionless when we have access to news of these terrible events. Why is it so hard, so strenuous for us to even mildly admit to feelings of grief and madness when we hear of such calamity? (Yes, madness, as in out-of-control or out-of-your-mind because tragedy just doesn’t make sense.)

It seems that our capacity for transmitting information has far outgrown our capacity to sit with that information, to understand and respond to it, to feel it and make some sense of it. In this, we run the terrible risk of redefining knowledge as information, as something that we experience only with the very tops of our heads and the nerve endings most remote from our hearts and our guts.

As a culture, we want to surmise the entire globe. We want unlimited access to information of activities from the point of view of disinterested observers. Is it our chronic state of inner emptiness that motivates us towards this need to be constantly informed by the continuously riveting news of external events? We have glorified and literalized the scientific method beyond reason, applying it to daily life situations which carry no meaning for us unless we dive in completely and become immersed.

As the Sufis say, “Reality is in the tasting.”

Perhaps we also are afraid, really, to allow Reality to taste us. And yet, perhaps that is why we must also have our own tragedies—both personal and collective—from time to time, because only through some portion of death can we truly feel the full impact of life.
The Tibetans and the Buddhists in general have a particular prayer-mantra that they circulate regularly through their minds and hearts.

It goes something like this: “May all beings be free of suffering. May all beings be at peace.”

I like this particular prayer as it really has universal implications. It is not just a prayer for oneself or one’s own concerns. It is a prayer for all sentient, living beings, for all life everywhere upon this planet and, potentially, throughout the universe. It is a prayer of compassion for the well-being of all things. As such, it implies a universal unity, a wholeness and acceptance of all life as essentially interrelated.

For those of us living in the Southern California and Mexico border region who felt our world tremble just a week ago, remember, we were spared.

We have lived while others have not.

Remember how fortunate we are just to be alive while others go homeless, their lives shattered or suddenly and violently ended altogether.

And while remembering this, send a little love to those less fortunate folks who have been praying for us our whole lives. Perhaps it’s time we remember them and pray for the sanctity of our human race. For, in essence, we are them and they are us.