On the morning of November 1, 1755 the residents of Lisbon, Portugal were knocked to their knees by one of the world’s most powerful earthquakes. Depictions of the earthquake in art and literature were produced and reproduced for centuries following the event, which came to be known as “The Great Lisbon Earthquake.”
The triple depiction shown in the engraving here shows Lisbon before the earthquake and the central picture shows it immediately afterward. The bottom picture portrays the effects of the quake on the suburbs of Meknes. Although it is not dated, researchers say we can assume it was composed shortly after the earthquake.
The earthquake was centered in the Atlantic Ocean. The total duration of shaking lasted 10 minutes and was comprised of three distinct jolts. The worst damage occurred in the southwest of Portugal. Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, was the largest and the most important of the cities damaged. Severe shaking was felt in North Africa; lives were lost in Fez and Mequinez. Moderate damage was done in Algiers and in southwest Spain. Shaking was also felt in France, Switzerland, and Northern Italy. A devastating fire after the earthquake destroyed a large part of Lisbon and a huge tsunami destroyed sections along the coasts of Portugal, southwest Spain, and western Morocco. In some places the waves crested at nearly 100 feet high. A tsunami six feet high reach as far as Galway, Ireland,
The oscillation of suspended objects far from the epicenter indicated an enormous area of impact. The observation of seiches — standing waves occurring on rivers, reservoirs, ponds, and lakes when seismic activity from an earthquake pass through an area — as far away as Finland, suggest a magnitude approaching 9.0. The same magnitude as the earthquake that just devastated northern Japan one week ago.
A while back I was doing some research for a novel I’m working on. Although the novel has nothing to do with earthquakes, there is a thread that runs through it hinting at the destructive capabilities of the natural world and our vulnerability in the face of such power, no matter if it’s something as fast as a lightning strike or as slow as erosion. An element that made the Lisbon earthquake so devastating, I learned, was not just the wreckage and deaths it left in its wake. It also marked a dramatic change in how Europeans at the time saw themselves in the scheme of things.
With a population estimated at between 200,000 and 275,000 residents at the time, Lisbon was one of the largest cities in Europe. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 of those residents died and about 85 percent of the city was leveled. This made Europeans then see how much human culture depended on the cooperation of nature. Up to then, history was thought to be progressive because people were capable of breaking from the cycles of nature in which other animals lived and of developing a culture that future generations could build upon. The destruction of Lisbon horrified people not just because of the extent of the damage but also because they were shocked into realizing that, in the end, they were powerless against nature.
What’s even more horrific now is to consider what we also know about how trauma affects the human psyche. People who suffer from trauma in its many manifestations — and Japan’s earthquake is certainly one of these manifestations — is a loss of trust in self and others and in existence itself. People in Japan who survived the earthquake there surely will suffer from this. And given the rapid spread of videos and photos of the earthquake and consequent tsunami, I wonder how far and wide this trauma and its effects has and will continue to spread.
Given the media saturation of such events now we all become affected by them. I was nowhere near the twin World Trade Center towers when they were attacked and destroyed in 2001. But I witnessed them come down time after time after time in photos I saw in newspapers and magazines and in the videos that captured the entire horrifying event on television and online. And believe it or not even still, going on 10 years after the event, barely a week — nay, barely a day — goes by when I do not see those ghostly images floating before my eyes in the most unlikely of hours and places — walking around my neighborhood, standing in line at the grocery store, and sometimes just before I drift off to sleep at night.
The same thing has already started happening to me with the hundreds of photos and videos I’ve seen within days the earthquake that struck Japan. The difference between the World Trade Towers coming down and the earthquake in Japan is that the towers were attacked by other people. The earthquake came from the earth itself. We all know we can’t always trust other people. But not being able to trust the very ground we walk on brings distrust and uncertainty to a whole new and perhaps indelible level. I think of what might be happening to the children who have not developed a strong enough psychological foundation to cope and who have experienced the earthquake themselves or watched it on TV, their limbic system now flooded with a level of fear and distrust that may never be erased. A psychic once told that me my crippling fear of flying goes back to my younger days when I watched countless WWII movies of war planes getting shot down out of the sky. Say what you will about psychics, this certainly makes sense to me.
The engravings that emerged after the Lisbon quake might have had the same effect on people then. Surely those who crawled from the rubble were never the same again. Perhaps in some way we’re psychically connected to that quake because that’s when artists and writers made the stark observation that we are ultimately powerless against certain events born of the natural world. Humanity has known since then — incorporated in us like a kind of DNA — that there is not one among us who can survive an earthquake, a tornado, a hurricane, or a flood when we are standing directly in their path. And now we’ve been given yet another stark and brutal reminder. And to my knowledge, despite the shrieking of apocalyptic rabble-rousers, there is no religious doctrine laid out in any scroll on any pulpit or tucked away in some cave somewhere that can truly account for such natural disasters.
Where do we turn for solace?
In the days after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, a friend emailed me to say she is always reminded of her favorite Hazrat Inayat Khan quote “when things like floods and earthquakes and tsunamis and reports of violence and war shake me up. He said, “Walking on the turning wheel of the earth, living under the ever-rotating sun, man expects a peaceful life.” It’s true. We do expect a peaceful life. Or least long for it. And sometimes we get it. But how long does it last? Even our own thoughts rarely give us such a precious gift. And where are we going to go to escape our own thoughts? Alcohol, drugs, compulsive shopping, sex, numbing out in front of the television are typical escapist behaviors. But their salve is temporary; the disquiet we always feel bubbles through and leaks out in various forms of impatience, irritability, and disrespect. In short, violence.
At around the same time news about the earthquake was spreading around the planet a short essay that appeared in the New York Times Magazine was making its rounds on the Internet. Titled “The Tire Iron and the Tamale,” the essay is about a man living in Oregon getting roadside help from Mexican immigrants after everyone else just blew right past him. It is a heartwarming story about people helping people who come from different countries and don’t even speak the same language.
I mention this essay here because I think at times like these when we feel overwhelmed by human suffering, perhaps the best — perhaps the most — we can do is just give someone you see a helping hand. Or call your mother or father. Or send a reconciliation email to an estranged sibling. Or wave someone through a 4-way stop sign instead of hurrying through first.
Aside from sending money or supplies to relief efforts in Japan, there is little we can do with our physical bodies here to help anyone there. But if we belong to our bodies as much as we belong to the earth, then we owe it to ourselves and those around us to put our bodies to use and show that, while we may be powerless against certain forces of the natural world, we are divine accomplices in the priceless act of creating a benevolent human community beginning with those standing right by our sides. Every religion and spiritual tradition I do know of charges us with the responsibility to be kind to one another, and this especially is true in moments like these.
In a letter he wrote to the people of Japan the renowned Vietnamese Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote: “An event such as this reminds us of the impermanent nature of our lives. It helps us remember that what’s most important is to love each other, to be there for each other, and to treasure each moment we have that we are alive. This is the best that we can do for those who have died: we can live in such a way that they continue, beautifully, in us.”
I think kindness can help us shore up our trust in each other and in life itself even if we can’t be sure that the ground we are walking on won’t one day open up at our feet or we won’t be swept away in a flood. At least we have that; at least we have our neighbors we can turn to and our neighbors have us to turn to, even if — or especially if — that neighbor is a complete stranger. This might just compensate for the insidious feelings working their way through us and seeping into our relationships that nothing and no one is to be trusted.
Trust doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen. And we can. And starts with each of us.