Four years later, 7 lessons I learned from the Earthquake
November 14 marks the four year mark of the 7.8 Kaikoura Earthquake. It’s a graduation for me, so to speak, and time to reflect on what I’ve learned over the past four years.
1. All it takes is one earthquake to bring us all together.
Kaikoura, like any place and community on earth, has its divisions. People avoid association with others due to reasons of differences, or individuals get sucked into their own worlds, forgetting to check in on their neighbors or friends they haven’t seen in a while.
But when the earthquake hit, everyone in Kaikoura stepped up. The local marae housed and fed stranded strangers, neighbors looked in on elderly residents, and farmers pulled out their shovels and tools and started filling in the large cracks that ripped up the roads.
Even in the first moments after the earthquake hit, I watched two students helped a third down the glass-covered staircase in bare feet. When I started shaking uncontrollably and went into shock, another student gave me her sweatshirt. We quickly got to task giving first aid, and helping in any way we could.
When we returned to the campus the next morning, we saw the extensive damage we couldn’t have seen at night: the holes in the roof, the cracks in the foundation, the warping floorboards, broken windows and the door broken off its hinges (on top of all the damage from things getting tossed about). In that moment, I’m not sure we knew what to do next. That’s when the pastors of a local church drove into our driveway and offered us refuge at the church. I could go on and on with stories like that.
Many locals observed this and celebrated the camaraderie and generosity they witnessed in light of the natural disaster. And yet others added that it shouldn’t have taken a 7.8 earthquake to bring the small-town community together.
Increasingly over the past several years, I’ve see a lot of social media posts and news stories that seem to villainize the “other” in your community. They argue that people who have different beliefs in politics, religion, culture (etc.) are someone to be afraid of. But all of the people that sow division are missing the humanness of us all. Somehow, in that humanness, when a tragedy hits, we surprise ourselves and jump to the aid of our fellow strangers and neighbors. Maybe that shouldn’t be so surprising after all.
2. Embrace your choices
In January of 2016, I made the decision to return to New Zealand for a second academic year. It wasn’t an easy choice. I spent several nights journaling and in prayer while on holiday with my family, trying to process the past few months of experience in the job and compare that to the unknowns of getting a job in the States. Eventually, I felt at peace with either decision, and decided to make the jump to committing to another year of life abroad.
That decision proved more challenging than I thought. The visa process for my second year ended up coming down to the wire. Then, it was denied one week before my flight back to New Zealand in August. I was mentally stressed out, and believed that I would never be able to return. In my effort to try to get there, my supervisor rewrote my job description and even job title, things I felt were ethically wrong but ignored those impulses at the time.
In the midst of this turmoil, I went to church and had a family friend offer this advice in response to my situation: “Maybe God doesn’t want you to go to New Zealand.” In my head I thought, “Why didn’t He say that when I asked Him about it 8 months ago?”
My second visa application was accepted five hours before my flight. And while I made it to my beloved New Zealand, I arrived a wound-up ball of stress. That stress never really went away.
After the earthquake, it was tempting to wonder, was that person right? Did I make the wrong choice all those months ago, and the visa problems were a sign?
My convictions, to this day, are that I was meant to be there. First, I’m glad that I was there as someone who knew our earthquake procedures and experienced several before, rather than a new person to the role. And second, as I hope the rest of this long blog post shows, I wouldn’t trade the learnings I was gifted from the earthquake for anything.
3. It’s okay to have different perceptions of the same event.
As soon as the earthquake hit, our brains started processing it. I listened as a local recounted the moment when a large cabinet started falling towards them, and just missed. The near-death experience led to a spiritual awakening, a profound sense of needing to return to God or dedicate more of their life to Him. Another remembered in awe the one thing that remained on the wall of the house, untouched, was the cross.
Likewise, others noticed the outpouring of love, generosity and heroism of their community and felt a sense of hope and pride in their neighbors. Yes, the dozens of people who threw the stranded paua back into the ocean probably only saved a drop in the bucket. But as the starfish parable goes, it mattered to those paua.
After assessing the damage and getting help to those that needed it, it was time to start rebuilding. And everyone seemingly wanted to be a part of it: the prime minister paid a visit, and members of the All Blacks rugby team flew down to give some moral support. Despite the devastation the town had faced, many processed the earthquake optimistically for the way it had brought the community together.
I, on the other hand, saw the earthquake as a tragedy. My brain felt lit on electricity as I relived the moments during and right after the earthquake over, and over, and over again. My mind tried to grasp the massive changes that had happened literally overnight: my home for the past two years had been destroyed; the semester was ending and I was about to say goodbye to 10 dear friends early; I might be out of a job; and, as I boarded the naval ship that was to start my journey back to the States—leaving the place I tried so hard to get to months earlier—my brain kept repeating, “This isn’t how it was supposed to end.”
So when a mutual friend wrote a blog post a mere month and a half later saying she was grateful for the earthquake and the way it brought the alumni of the study abroad program together, I shook with rage. “You weren’t there!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her, but I also couldn’t embrace her perspective yet for myself. It was too raw, and her viewpoint felt insensitive to me.
Now, four years later, there are times when I can say I was grateful for the earthquake and its impact on my life. As I began to remember my mental state in the weeks leading up to it, I’ve realized that my time working with that program and living in the old convent were coming to an end, whether the earthquake happened or not. In fact, there was even a moment when the thought crossed my mind, “Did I cause the earthquake?” Because the earthquake gave me the perfect opportunity to get out, to leave early, when I probably wouldn’t have made that decision otherwise.
4. Treasure the fragility of the present
The weeks leading up to the earthquake were a rollercoaster ride. I’d hit these high peaks of having great conversations with students, swimming in the ocean and running with mountain views, and then I’d hit these lows of frustration with programmatic details, lack of communication and perceived slights.
It was easy to let the low from a morning make me not enjoy the highs later on in the day, or to allow a frustration at night put a sour reflection on a day that was overall enjoyable. That’s probably why the Bible encourages us to dwell on the good and true. If you get sucked into a world of gossip and speculation, a small gesture will ruin not only your day but potentially the days of others around you.
In the times when I got sucked into my own personal drama, it was hard to treasure the fragility of the present. But the unique gift of life at the convent was its transient nature. Because we only had so much time together with the students (and they had only so much time in New Zealand), life was like a sponge where we tried to soak up every last drop of experience.
For example, if someone was hesitant to go out on an adventure—say snorkeling in the ocean or hiking up Mt. Fyffe—we’d often say, “You might not ever have the chance to do this again.” The temporary nature of it all made us, in a way, live each day like it was our last. There was little room for excuses, because you didn’t actually know that such an opportunity would present itself again before you left.
There were times when I’d acknowledge this fragility. I’d sit in my bed at night and look around, trying to memorize all the small details from the curtain patterns to the floor boards to the little painted lizard in the corner, thinking, “This is only temporary, living here. Being here. One day, this will just be a memory.”
I just did not expect that day to come as soon as it did.
5. Expect change
Call me narcissistic, but I’m the type of person who’s tempted to think that when I leave a place, nothing will change while I’m gone.
That’s never proved true. When I first spent time in New Zealand the fall semester of my senior year, a LOT changed back in the States. My close college friend group from freshman year disintegrated, couples broke up, one friend got into a traumatic car accident, and all of this was in addition to significant social unrest on campus.
Despite that lesson, two years later—back in the States after the 7.8 earthquake—I felt that same pull towards nostalgia. If only I was only there in Kaikoura, I thought, I could take morning runs to the ocean or hang out with my local friends. If only the earthquake didn’t happen, everything would have stayed the same. On some days I’d idealize my past, applying a rose-tinted glow to my pre-earthquake memories, tempting me to believe that my experience in New Zealand had been a time and place of perfection. If only I could go back to that!
But the reality is, even if I could find (or return to) that “perfect” place or “perfect” community, it wouldn’t stay that way for long. My definition of perfect would have to change as others around me changed. I couldn’t prevent friends from moving away, or from moving into new stages of life (like new jobs or growing families) that resulted in less time with me.
Sometimes I trick myself into thinking that I want the stagnation of sameness because there’ve been instances of change I’ve processed as “bad.” Therefore, all uncontrollable change is something to be wary of, right? But that’s not true. Change is natural. We see it in the rotating seasons, the growth of saplings into trees and the erosion of rocks by rainwater, rivers or oceans. Even seemingly unmovable mountains are simultaneously growing and eroding.
To expect change is to accept change, whatever it may entail. You may process it as good, another person may process it as bad, but either way it is inevitable.
6. If you go back to the past, do it so that you can let it go.
When I went to counseling shortly after deciding to not return to New Zealand, I felt a large sense of unfinished business. I needed and wanted closure, but how was that possible from thousands of miles away?
The truth was, I was heartbroken when I left Kaikoura. My home that I loved and that fostered many cherished memories was wrecked by pieces of glass, overturned bookcases, broken picture frames and warped floorboards. That night, as we waited in the vans at the base of Mt. Fyffe rocked back and forth by aftershocks, all I wanted to do was come back to the convent in the morning, take a shower and a nap, and then get started on the long but fulfilling task of cleaning and putting the home back together. I wanted to be part of the rebuilding stage that is natural after a disaster like that.
But I chose to leave and not return, for the sake of my mental health. To get closure, then, my counselor advised I take time to sit in quiet and imagine myself back in the convent. I could picture it as it was the day after the earthquake, and then go room by room imagining myself cleaning, rebuilding and repairing. I’d vacuum up the glass, pick up the fallen items, and repair what was broken until I could imagine my home as it was before. And then, in my memory, I could walk through each room of that big house one last time as I remembered it—whole and full of light—and say goodbye.
In that instance, going back to the past helped me fulfill a need and action I couldn’t even have done if I returned there in person. But I only went back to the past so that I could reckon with my unfinished business, and then let it go.
7. It’s not all about you
Seems ironic to write that, since literally this entire blog post is all about me and my thoughts. But outside of this written page, it’s not. It’s a lesson I luckily first encountered before the Kaikoura Earthquake, and get to remind myself of time and again.
In that vein, the life lessons and learning of these past years wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my family, friends and counselor. I’m grateful for the New Zealand friends who stayed closely in touch for the first year after—the only people who truly understood what I’d been through. I’m thankful for close friends who have been through their own trauma who were able to support me, and through our shared life experiences I was able to understand them more fully.
To the church that felt like home, thanks for getting me to play the violin again and showing me what my new “perfect” community could look like. To Adventure Camp and the Children’s Aid Society, thanks for empowering me and showing me that I am whole enough to take on life’s stresses (even in the form of multiple 14-year-olds trying to undermine my leadership).
And to my boyfriend, Jeff—who knows if we would have met if it wasn’t for the earthquake? You have continually challenged me to be open to new ways of learning and experiences that have been big contributors to my personal growth. With you, I got to step out onto a new adventure: moving to a new home, learning in a new job, and getting to practice my community-building skills once again. Thank you.