Tuesday, February 21, 2012

One Year Later: A Lesson on Stability

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that one year ago today, I was in Christchurch New Zealand and at 12:51pm an earthquake struck that devastated the city, killed over 180 people, and from which I was evacuated to the US Ambassador’s home in Wellington aboard a New Zealand Air Force jet.

For much of my time in New Zealand, I felt a day ahead, yet somehow behind because I woke up around the time the news day ended on the east coast of the United States. Today, I feel a day behind. February 21 means nothing in New Zealand other than the day before tragedy struck. And yet it is today, the 21st, that I must realize that one year ago I was in that earthquake.

Many people I admire and respect are writing about their memories and sharing the memories of others on that tragic day. Other than restating my immense and continuing gratitude to the people in Christchurch who helped us get out safely and quickly (with only immense guilt to follow) and the US Embassy for ensuring all of us were accounted for, and our Kiwi companions were not forgotten, I have little to add to the memories. I honestly feel like I had a different experience than most people. I was never in any physical danger, I saw no people in physical pain, or worse, and I was out of the city less than 6 hours after the earthquake struck.

But it was not until about a month after the earthquake that I realized I had been in shock for that month. When I felt normal again, I realized something had been abnormal. But looking back on that moment, day, and shared experience over time, I am reminded of the hardest realization I had about earthquakes – they are an unannounced event that literally shakes the very foundation upon which we stand and rely for support throughout our day. For that reason, they shock us to the core, and they force us to reevaluate the steadiness we thought we had.

It may seem trite to compare this to lawyering, but I have done it before in an “Expecting Disaster” context. But as a practicing lawyer, I see it happening around me all the time. I start most days having a decent idea of what I am to expect . . . or so I think. Rarely have my days ended as I expected they would at 6am in the morning. We can be prepared, but something unexpected and new sometimes pops up.

The question is how should we respond? In Christchurch, I saw the best of people. Everyone I saw, and all the stories I heard, were of people forgetting their own needs and helping each other. People in suits rescued folks from burning rubble, and a waitress told an ex-Congressman fromTucson to be sure to take his lunch with him as it might be the last meal hewould have for a wee while. People responded as they had to because their common goodness kicked in.

What if we responded that way to the “crises” we face each and every day? I lamented for weeks after the earthquake, and again after the terrible tragedy in Japan, that it should not take a crisis of unspeakable tragedy to bring people together in such profound and deep ways. I still wonder what would happen if our response to each unsettling moment that we view as the crisis du jour (or worse, du moment), were seen instead as an opportunity to see the good in each other and to make the best of each and every circumstance.

There is no question that some of the unexpected moments of my first two months at a new job have thrown me for a loop . . . or several. But something interesting happened to me the other day. I was in a yoga class, and for the first time since stepping back onto American soil on December 11, I truly felt like I was back in the United States. It was as though the confusion of living in two time zones, two worlds, and two mindsets had finally lifted. I felt connected to the Earth and felt it solidly beneath me.

That was just over one week ago. The earthquake anniversary is a reminder that such a connection may not always be there. Craziness will continue to ensue in my life and at work. Unexpected moments will continue to arise, and each one will present the opportunity to respond. No matter what your life entails, I can almost guarantee you will face such moments as well. I ask us all, myself absolutely included, to respond with the same humanity, dignity, and oneness I witnessed in Christchurch.

I would like to revise my laments from last year. Perhaps it does take a crisis to bring out these moments within us, but perhaps the crisis is something we initially believe is one until we realize that we are all in this together. As we held each other through each aftershock, we knew the shaking would continue, but we also knew we were all there for each other. Some of those people I have not seen since that day, and some of them will be friends for life.

How would the world be different if we all reached out to each other in our moments of shakiness and unexpected crises?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved. 


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about such a tragic moment in your life. Yoga training can help us to be more mindful during times of crisis. Through our practice we can also learn to bring more kindness into our lives.