“Awareness of impermanence is encouraged, so that when it is coupled with our appreciation of the enormous potential of our human existence, it will give us a sense of urgency that I must use every precious moment.“–The 14th Dalai Lama.
I awoke this morning from my peaceful perch in Barbados to news of a massive earthquake yesterday in Haiti on the island of Hispaniola. In the BBC report that alerted me to the event, a British Geological Survey geologist commented that the 7.0 quake, centered ten miles west of Port-au-Prince, hit a bad trifecta: large magnitude, poor country, dense population.
But that’s not really so remarkable; one need only think back to the 1988 Armenia; 1999 Izmit, Turkey; 2005 Kashmir, Pakistan; or 2009 Sichuan, China earthquakes to know that accumulated stress in the earth always finds release in geologic, if not human, time. But for those who pay attention to these types of “natural” disasters, what was more startling was the location of this earthquake.
Pakistan, Turkey, Georgia, Afghanistan, Iran, India, China. This litany of earthquake foci may unsettle but not surprise us because we know that these locations trace the arcs of great mountain ranges at the suture zones between colliding continents. Expected Caribbean “natural” disasters, on the other hand, usually center on volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and landslides. Indeed, Haiti has not experienced an earthquake of this magnitude since 1770. But in a corollary to the caution that “where there is smoke, there is fire,” to the geological savant, where there is volcanism there are earthquakes. And indeed, the collision of the Caribbean Sea and North American lithospheric plates is the agent of both these Caribbean phenomena.
Barbados, in the easternmost Caribbean, is a coral platform rather than an active volcanic center. Still, I wondered if I had felt the shaking. Depending on magnitude, lithospheric ruptures anywhere in this region could be perceived by others islanders because, to seismic energy, the Caribbean is a small place. We know that Haitians felt it horribly. And according to the BBC, their spontaneous responses have included prayer. Such responses connect Haitians to other people who have endured this kind of trauma. Like the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that inspired debate among common people as well as luminaries including Voltaire, Alexander Pope, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the subject of God’s place in the natural world and human affairs, along with concerted efforts at disaster control, the Haiti earthquake spurs entreaties for intercession and appeals for compassion.
The earthquake caused me to recall Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein’s response to the question “Why me?” spoken when extraordinary lamentable conditions arise. “Why not me?” teaches Boorstein. The earthquake in Haiti reminds me that the Earth is home to myriad creatures who are but temporary global residents; at every moment, all living beings are the Earth’s subjects. Yet social and economic circumstances cause some living beings greater vulnerability to such disasters. I’m glad that, according to my children, in Barbados study of “natural” disasters is part of the social, not natural, science curriculum. It underscores that indeed these phenomena are both social and “natural” and that our responses must include compassion, kindness and prayer as well as scientific questions and explanations.