This message is not for the people of Tacloban. The people of Tacloban do not need any messages from me. They are completely engulfed in a reality that eclipses the linguistic coding of sentiment or solidarity. Send money if you can. No, this message isn’t for, but rather from the people of Tacloban, because in their horrific struggle for survival and security, they have sent a message to you. It is a message you don’t want, and that none of us is ready for.
Some people have a sudden glimpse of reality, a stroke of insight, an aha moment. They might strive for it a long time – travel the world, trek mountains, study the wisdom of sages. But that’s not the glimpse of reality that matters. The glimpse that can change your life is the sight of rubble and ruin – the truth that things fall apart. We see the evidence every day, but still, it’s a hard thing to wake up to.
There was that cloudless morning in early September when most of us – roused by the radio, a phone call, or a shuddering impulse – turned on our televisions and saw the impossible. We saw a building buckle, and then, after a breathless half-second, a rushing crush of dust as one and then another tower disappeared in front of us – a Niagara of concrete, steel, desks, and doorknobs, everyday lives conjoined irretrievably in death, a plume of ash simultaneously rising and falling and haunting the gaping emptiness we could not turn away from.
One day after Christmas, the Indian Ocean stood to reach a resplendent sky and then tumbled forward into a bottomless blackness, swallowing the earth in one gulp, stealing the doomed from their innocent idylls and the sleepy ease of paradise – paradise! A whole population was snatched from the sheltering palms of a holiday while the rest of us still celebrated ours.
These things really happened. Of course, they happened to someone else.
There are a thousand tragedies no one knows about but you: the day the hospital calls, the accident happens, the letter arrives, and time runs out; the door slams, the brakes squeal, and the paperwork is signed. The day the rains flood, the pipes burst, the bones break, or the dinner burns. The day you lose your mind in a wild rage. The day you hurt someone.
We might think these days will end the way we spend our days – the way we worry and waste our days. We say they are wakeup calls. But do we really wake up? And what do we wake up to? Soon we forget, and go back to searching for the illusive comforts of a tamed and predictable world, one that doesn’t rise up without warning and defeat us every time.
Now, don’t tell me how you will die. Tell me how you will live.
This post was originally published on March 17, 2011 as Japan is calling.
It could have been May 20, 2013 as Oklahoma is calling.
Or Oct. 29, 2012 as New Jersey is calling.
Jan. 12, 2010 as Haiti is calling.
Aug. 29, 2005 as New Orleans is calling.
Someone somewhere is always calling you.
Photo: Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images