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I watched a very powerful and moving documentary on the great tsunami of 2004, “Tsunami Caught on Camera”.
What struck me most was the absolute bewilderment of the victims from beginning to end. I completely identified with these people and my heart was filled with empathy for them. The event was just so far off the radar of their experience and knowledge that they simply could not make it fit into their intellectual, emotional and even spiritual matrix. I could see what I’ve called the four stages of denial at work. Others probably have observed stages of denial, but these are my observations that emerged from watching the documentary.
- THAT COULD NEVER HAPPEN: The thought never crossed anyone’s mind. Of course not. Many of the people interviewed were on vacation, enjoying a beautiful, serene, romantic Christmas in an exotic place. For native residents of the areas struck it was just another gorgeous day like any other. The thought of a tsunami wasn’t even on their radar.
- THAT WILL NOT HAPPEN: Many people could feel something strange happening before it started. A teenager had premonitions it was going to happen. One young couple on their honeymoon were about to go out on a boat when all the water receded, beaching the boats. Scuba divers noticed there were no fish anywhere while they were being tossed around on the ocean floor. Even when people on shore watched ships being overturned, they still were completely baffled. You can hear people saying things like, “What is that? What is the water doing? Should we run?”
- THIS ISN’T HAPPENING: Even while being flung about like insects in a turbulent current, some of the thoughts going through people’s minds were that this isn’t happening. Some thought this isn’t how they were going to die. Utter confusion flooded their minds as they tried to understand what in the world was happening to them. Even while the streets filled to the top of the buildings with cars and trees and refuse and bodies, people looked on with shock trying to piece together in their minds what was occurring.
- THAT DIDN’T JUST HAPPEN: Even many years later the interviewees still can’t believe it. It is like trying to describe an alien who’s features do not match anything they’d ever seen before. There are no words for it. One man cries on the ground, “I am the only one left! My God why have you abandoned me?” How devastatingly quick loved ones can be torn from your arms and out of your life is still something they can’t integrate into their understanding. The merciless speed at which their lives were overturned still does not fit into any concept or language available to any human being.
I have had a few tsunamis in my life. They do not nearly measure up to the gravity of the Great Tsunami of 2004, but it functions as a suitable analogy to life’s traumas.
One of the greatest tsunamis life threw at me was a church split in 1997. I was the pastor, and I never ever thought it could happen to me. It wasn’t even on the radar of possibilities. When it started happening I still couldn’t believe it. Even when it crashed over me and the church during a Sunday morning service, I couldn’t figure out what in the world was happening. Still to this day I don’t comprehend it. After cataloging all the devastation it left behind, I simply cannot believe it. I keep a journal, and as I read that episode the dominant theme is overwhelming confusion. There are simply no words.
What about the deconstruction of what we thought were essential beliefs? Watching our infantile and inadequate belief in God crumble before our very eyes is one of the most devastating tsunamis life can throw at us, and the quicker we realize what is happening, the quicker we can act to save our spiritual wellbeing. This is what many people are doing at The Lasting Supper. Kudos to them!
There is one video of a man just standing in the water looking at the wave as it crashes over him. People are shouting, “He doesn’t want to move!” He must’ve been paralyzed by “This can’t be happening!” Of course he didn’t survive. Denial is a coping mechanism. Sometimes it is useful to protect us from fatal emotional damage. Denial can help us keep trauma at bay while we let it in by measures. But sometimes it is not useful because it may prevent us from saving ourselves on time.
What about you? What kind of tsunamis were thrown at you? Do you see any of these stages of denial at work in your attempt to survive it? Is your denial useful or not?