People release dove-shaped balloons to mourn earthquake and tsunami victims in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 11, the 10th anniversary of the earthquake which triggered a tsunami and nuclear disaster that killed nearly 20,000 people. (Photo: AFP)
When I step out of my home, I enter a city that did not exist 75 years ago.
Oh, there was a spot called Tokyo on any map of Japan, but there was nothing or not much on the spot of earth that the spot on the map symbolized.
Aside from some burnt-out concrete structures, there were almost no buildings. Mount Fuji, 95 kilometers away, was visible from anywhere in what had once been a metropolis of wood but was now a wasteland of ashes. There were no homes, no stores, no restaurants, no food, no jobs, no schools, no trees, few hospitals, no medicine. There was no hope, only death and fear.
Today, Tokyo is a world-class super-city, and Mount Fuji is only visible from the upper stories and observation decks of skyscrapers.
Ten years ago, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded struck the northeast coast of Japan’s main island. It and the tsunami that followed destroyed towns, caused a nuclear power plant explosion and killed nearly 20,000 people.
A few weeks later, an elderly woman described the day to me.
“After the quake, I looked out the window and saw my neighbor. You know how we old women are — she was already out in her garden, picking up the flower pots and such that had fallen over. She wasn’t from here originally, and so she didn’t think about tsunami.
“I shouted to her, ‘Never mind straightening up, there’s bound to be a tsunami. Come with me, we’ve got to get to high ground.’
“So, we went up the hill. It was actually kind of pretty and even funny to watch our houses twirl around each other like dancers as they washed out to sea.”
She laughed as she spoke.
March 11 was the 10th anniversary of that quake disaster and the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration that the new coronavirus is a pandemic.
One personal result of this latest disaster has been that I learned a new Japanese word, jishuku (self-control, now self-isolation). For me, it has meant that for a year I have mostly eaten my own cooking and my major excursion is the trash trek when I take out my garbage.
Of course, for many other people it has meant illness, death, the loss of loved ones, economic disaster, mental health problems and domestic violence due to isolation, lost educational opportunities and the curtailment of social and religious life.
At times when I feel sorry for myself (isolation and a limited culinary repertoire can be a “downer”), I call myself up short by recalling that others have endured worse through the centuries. Others are enduring worse today. “Suck it up, Buttercup,” (“get over it” or “deal with it”) is my new motto.
Humankind is resilient. We have survived worse, much worse, than this pandemic.
There is an Old English poem called Deor that recounts various disasters. After each stanza is the refrain, “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg” (that passed, this can too).
History tells us that we will somehow get through this crisis. We may be changed. We may be scarred. We may have hurts to our hearts and spirits that we will carry to our graves. But we will carry on. We will, like that Japanese woman, laugh in and even at our loss.
And what has this longest Lent in history meant for we who believe?
Our communal worship has been curtailed or even canceled. Our worship communities face financial disaster. People have gotten out of the habit of coming together and many might not reacquire the habit. In their responses to safety measures like shutdowns and vaccines, the stupidity of some who claim to lead churches will drive some people away.
And, of course, as in any disaster, prayers for protection and healing have not borne the fruit that was desperately desired.
The calendar tells us that Easter will be on April 4, but we know that for many of us the Lent that started a year ago will last until the end of this year or beyond.
Are we using this Lent as preparation for a new life?
We have been forced to give up a lot rather than choosing our Lenten sacrifices. Has that given us time and heart to remember that Emmanuel, God-with-us, is enough? We have been shut off from many of our usual contacts and activities. Have we used the time to increase our prayer and embrace of Scripture? Have we spent our “down time” binge watching TV, or have we spent it reading, reflecting, listening to good music or learning something new about faith, the world and ourselves?
We usually end Lent by going to confession as a wrap-up of our Lenten preparation for celebrating the Triduum and Easter. Honestly speaking, when this long Lent finally ends, I must confess that I have wasted the opportunity to know God more deeply in and through this time. I have too often forgotten that God is here. I have too often let self-pity, or more often, boredom take control of my thoughts and feelings.
I have too often allowed myself to forget, “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.”
William Grimm is a missioner and priest in Tokyo and is the publisher of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.