My travelling writing sabbatical has been turned upside down and my brain often feels scattered. It has been a month since my last blog; that sounds like a confession. I could say I haven’t had time to write, but in truth it is because I have been avoiding writing about May 12th, the second big quake. I felt I had overdone writing deep and meaningful blogs and I ‘ought’ to write something light hearted and funny. A friend reminded me of this the other day, commenting on my Facebook, “Louise I had forgotten how funny you can be.” But it just isn’t the time for writing something light hearted and funny. It is serious or nothing. Feel free to opt out now dear reader if funny is what you need; I want to write about fear and altruism.
Altruism helps humanity survive. I see this everywhere in Nepal. We humans have a strong fear response to cover and stay safe, but our need to help others pushes us through this. Altruistic behaviours may even be the key to our recovery from trauma.
First there comes fear. The Gorkha quake has shown me just how efficient we humans are at learning about danger. One trial learning. We just need one trauma to teach our mind and body to look out for similar danger.
My learning went like this: During the first quake I had stared with wonder as my tea spilled over the cup and across the table. I was thinking, “Why is the tea doing that?” For just a brief few seconds I was totally confused. I noticed the world moving. I noticed the loud sounds. But I had no experience of earthquakes and what this kind of shaking might mean. So I just sat there stunned.
As I work now, and talk to the volunteers I have been training in workshops, I have found many people share this experience. For a few brief seconds in the Gorkha quake they were not afraid, just confused, puzzled, and curious. Then the fear came.
I marvel now at how efficient we are once we know to be afraid. Immediately after the quake my body became tuned to every tiny vibration. I began to notice that my apartment shook when planes flew overhead, when trucks drove by, when the wind whipped up, and when someone walked heavily or slammed doors. In fact, I discovered that the whole world vibrates constantly. I just never had the reason to pay attention before. Now my body was on full alert, waiting, needing to be tuned in to these sensations. Each time an aftershock did come, I froze like a rabbit in the headlights, waiting, feeling the world. My mind also joined in the fun. My mind, my keep me alive machine, was constantly ready to interpret any sensations detected in my body. Sometimes my mind even made the earth feel like it was moving when it wasn’t; creating it’s own aftershocks. No wonder traumatized humans, such as abused children or war veterans, are always on the alert. They’ve had many learning trials with fear and are experts at fear detection.
Gradually however, as the aftershocks came and went with regularity, my newly learned fear changed to become calmer. First, my body notices vibration, then I pause, assess risk, and then most often, resume what I was doing. I slowly learned to get on with things and have the fear rise and fall. Other humans seemed to get on with living too.
Within a matter of hours after the big quake, humans began to help each other. As I train volunteers in psychological first aid in Nepal, a common theme emerges; a deep urge to help others. Everyone I talk to says this same thing; it was uncomfortable ‘not’ helping. It was frustrating. Within hours Kathmandu folks quickly began helping each other, pulling people from the rubble and clearing the roads. I was amazed at their resilience.
So what did I do to help after the Gorkha quake of April 25th? I left for Tibet on a holiday. Ouch. I flew out on a trip that I had purchased months before. Tibet was beautiful, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I was edgy and shadowed by guilt. It was the wrong time to be on a holiday. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was only my luck to be a Westerner that I could just up and leave Nepal. The contrast to Nepali people, living on a few dollars a day and having no means of escape, was stark. They must stay and mop up. I was able to run from it. I felt bad.
It came as a weird relief to fly back into Kathmandu. Landing in the city and heading out onto the crazy ring road I held my breath wondering what I would see. I expected calamity. To my surprise it looked normal for Kathmandu. As the taxi wound through the traffic I marveled again at the resilience of humans. In everyday life we worry about things going wrong — a lost job, an ended relationship, our children struggling — yet here, in the midst of a gigantic catastrophe, I saw a profound coping.
We underestimate our capacity.
May 12th rolled around. I noticed just that morning that there had been no big aftershocks for a few days, so I decided it was time to be in my own head alone for a few hours and do some writing. It was my first time alone in Kathmandu without having a neighbor within shouting distance. The apartment block was empty. I sat on the edge of the bed, MacBook open, feeling content to be back to normal. Work is so comforting. It was a very hot day; the pre-monsoon tension was heavy in the air. I sheltered inside and hoped the afternoon would bring a little rain to settle the dust and clear air pressure. My peace was short-lived however, less than one hour alone.
The now familiar sensation of quake came. I paused, no confusion this time, I know to fear this now, this crescendo of moving earth. I crawled five meters out the open door and onto the marble rooftop. The ground seemed to be roaring with the noise of everything shaking. I knew the safe thing to do was to stay here until the shaking stopped. Nearby on the roof were two water tanks up on metal stands shaking like trees, 2000 kilos of water. It shook like a sapling in a storm. I could not take my eyes off the bent leg on the tank-stand as it ground into the roof gouging out the marble. I made it my ‘job’ to stare at it, telling myself if it fell I would scramble in the opposite direction to the tanks. Silly really. I’m sure if 2000 kilos of water gave way I wouldn’t have time to escape.
I had no idea how big this quake was, but I knew it was big and long. It seemed to go on forever. Suddenly a loud crashing told me buildings close by were falling down. “Oh jeez” I thought, “not again.” The noise was deafening. The noise is the most frightening of all; our primitive fear detector goes crazy.
Once the ground stopped shaking I grabbed my keys and my pre-packed backpack and headed for the stairs. I was shaking like jelly. I made my way down the marble staircase and came to the stairway’s steel mesh gate. It was closed. I looked and saw the padlock on the gate was locked. I yelled to no one, “Fuck they’ve locked me in.” I wondered if the neighbors were mad. Who locks the door during this earthquake prone time? A vision flashed of the building collapsing while I was locked in the stairwell. I had the key in my hand but I was shaking so much I couldn’t get the key in the keyhole. It was like trying to thread a needle while sitting on a jackhammer. Eventually I got it unlocked, slammed the gate across and ran down the stairs two at a time. I joined all the locals standing out on the road by the river.
In a disaster situation, humans stand together and they quickly become a group. I am foreign to these locals, but they included me as part of their refugee group that day – I was ‘in.’ The women pointed and told me with sign language about the four apartments that had all crashed down. The kids who are learning English translated. Women pointed at my roof top room and asked if I was alone. They shook their heads and said; ‘Don’t go back up there, too dangerous.’ We all just stood and waited. We shrugged. How long do we stand out in the blistering hot sun? All the while we kept staring over to the new space in the sky where the apartment buildings had disappeared.
Eventually I returned to the apartment, there was nothing else to do. I lay down on the floor of the kitchen and sobbed. I had been so scared. I later found out the stairway gate had not been locked at all, it was merely jammed tight from the house shaking but with my fear and flight response I mistook it as locked. This second quake brought up a much stronger fear response. I now know the dangers of earthquakes and the damage that they bring to life and property.
The mood in Kathmandu after May 12th was dark for days. It seemed sadder than after the Gorkha quake. People hid in their shelters, tents, or apartments. The streets were abandoned. All their gung-ho had gone. In its place was a sad resignation. People said, “The experts are wrong, another big one can happen at anytime.” They hid. They left the city. Learned fear and helplessness hung over Kathmandu. As I speak to people in my training workshops, many people say they were more scared in this second quake. I think we knew what to fear.
Yet, the human spirit is unstoppable. We don’t stay down for long. Slowly, slowly each day people ventured out from their tents to return to their apartments. People came back to the roads to get about their business. Although it seemed to take longer this time, they still returned to living. People went out to discover what they could do for others. Me too. Many people report strong urges to help – to do something. As I go about workshops on psychological first aid, participants talk of an overwhelming self-sacrifice. We felt better as soon as we could help. We hated the feeling of being helpless, we felt guilty, frustrated, and irritable. We needed to help.
It seems clear we humans are deeply altruistic. It is embedded in our psyche. We need to do something, to help others to get through. The days of waiting were over. We were now off and running, discovering how to help, people helping any way they could. The spirit returned.
A teacher said to me, ”Nepali people are tough, they are resilient and they will get better.” Yes, I said, they are indeed a resilient people.
We humans are resilient. Fear does not stop us. We get together, we become altruistic, we help each other, and we get on with living. So there will be no more sad blogs, we are healing now.
We face a trauma and we heal together.