“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
-Dwight D. Eisenhower
I've spent the weekend firmly planted in front of my television screen watching the tragedy in Japan unfold. Like many across the world, I've been grieving for the people on the coast of Japan who, despite having one of the best records of earthquake preparedness, have come face to face with a force for which there is no adequate amount of preparation. I sit at a very comfortable distance from the monstrous wave that washed across the coast and swept six miles inland before finally retreating. Somehow even the broadcast images of that black, debris-filled tsunami are terrifying and despite the numerous times the news broadcasts replay the image I am never truly prepared for the devastation I am witnessing.
In the wake of tragedy there are always those who step up to the microphone to critique a nation's preparedness and to offer advice on how to be ready should a similar tragedy befall you, the viewer. Various networks have paraded survivors of the Indonesian tsunami out to help us understand the terror first hand. They've brought in geologists, nuclear physicists, and any number of related experts to help us understand the processes by which the earthquake occurred, the measures being taken to ward off meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and the psychological effects of such devastation. The information that has most captured my imagination, however, is the fact that this earthquake has altered the earth's axis by approximately four inches. Somewhere on the other side of the planet, deep beneath the sea, an invisible pressure created a chain reaction that literally changed the world. How exactly does one prepare for that?
When I was young I distinctly remember my father telling me that there was no such thing as luck, that luck was simply the nexus of opportunity and preparation. The concept is both reassuring and disconcerting. The reassurance, of course, stems from the idea that if one prepares then all you have to do to succeed is seize opportunity when it arises. If this holds true then we are all 'lucky' and who doesn't want to see themselves as lucky? The disconcerting part comes in when things don't go your way. It's this logic that leads us to blame ourselves for car accidents, cancer, a loved one's bad decisions. If only I'd prepared for this I could have kept it from happening. Sometimes, however, there just isn't enough preparation in the world to ward off disaster.
I have always been subject to over-thinking things, it's a trait that drove my mother crazy. I needed, almost neurotically, to know things. When introduced to a new concept or situation, I could never really rest until I'd run every possible scenario through my mind. A Plan B was never enough for me. I needed to plan all the way to Z. If she said she'd pick me up after school I'd have to imagine every possible outcome if she failed to show up. If I confided a secret in a friend almost immediately I'd run every imaginable response to possible betrayal. This sort of preparation comforted me. I could handle anything but surprise. I've often been accused of thinking too much but from where I stood thinking any less felt calamitous. My parents still joke about this trait and every year they give me a calender called "Worst Case Scenario" which is chock full of information on how to prepare for any number of extraordinary events. For instance, despite the fact that I have never been skiing and avoid both heights and snow, I am prepared to survive an avalanche. Should I be buried alive in one I know to dig myself out a little hole and then spit on the wall of snow, whichever direction the spittle flows, I should dig the opposite way. Yeah gravity! I also know that when being captured by an alligator I should poke him in the eye. I also know that the advice to run away in a zig zag pattern is not the best advice, just run straight because alligators tire easily on land. I live in New Jersey, I have never seen an alligator outside of a zoo here.
Mostly I'm prepared for things I will probably never face the one thing I'm still not prepared for however, is surprise.
Surprise is just what I've gotten lately. In the past year my father-in-law was diagnosed with and succumbed to cancer within six weeks, my dear friend was killed in car accident, and most recently my eighteen year old son decided to leave high school early and move in with friends. I was not prepared for any of this. I had run countless scenarios about how my children would grow to maturity. I'd speculated in my head about graduation parties, college dorm rooms, wedding ceremonies, grandchildren. None of the scenarios I ran had my teenage son walking out the door and cutting ties with the family. I was woefully unprepared.
When I began raising children I read countless books to guarantee I'd do it right. I learned various parenting techniques in an attempt to insure their self-esteem, their work ethic, their academic success. I made mistakes like all parents do but I avoided the major pitfalls. I talked to them, I apologized when I was wrong, I made them do chores and earn the money they needed for trips to the movies and cellphones. I tried to prepare them to make good decisions. It looks, at least for the moment, like I failed my eldest. When he walked out the door in late January my axis shifted and nearly two months later I am still adjusting to the aftershocks. As hard as we try to prepare ourselves for the unexpected, to plan for the battles, sometimes all that strategy cannot withstand chaos of circumstance.
This year I've seen dear friends struggle with losses I cannot fathom, one with the loss of her husband and the other with the reality of having a multiply handicapped infant. How can one prepare for the emotional ramifications of widowhood? For the loss of dreams you had for a child? For the pressures that build silently below the surfaces of our lives until in one instant your world violently shifts off its axis and you are left to somehow figure out how to clean up the wreckage?
Sitting in front of the television listening to experts talk about how Japan might have better prepared for this disaster, I cannot help but think of all those people on the other side of the world who have only just begun to pick up the pieces of their lives. Of those preparing to bury loved ones, those gathering shards of broken glass and salvaging family pictures, of mothers clinging to children and workers frantically trying to avoid meltdown, about how the world has already begun to assign blame by critiquing their preparedness. It is human nature to analyze and as humans we like to think of ourselves as rational, advanced creatures who have, more than any other creature, been able to tame nature. The truth, however, is much less reassuring. Sometimes there are forces beyond our control and no amount of planning, no engineering, no matter how sophisticated, will ever be enough to keep unseen forces from suddenly and irrevocably changing our paths forever. So where do we find reassurance? This is not the first disaster to adjust the planet's course, in fact many major earthquakes before it have done the same. So as the people of Japan begin to rebuild their lives in a country that has literally shifted position, they will not be the first to do so. Somehow, despite the sudden jarring, even catastrophic realignments can bring an opportunity to thrive. Perhaps in a few years, when Japan has rebuilt its infrastructure, when the debris has been cleared away, there will arise from disaster a kind of strength we can gained only from the things we cannot plan for.