There are not enough words for the tragedy unfolding in Japan: earthquake, tsunami, awakening, nightmare scenario, meltdown. While we bear witness, the narrative changes by the hour, outcome unknowable and terrifying. It is possible for the damaged reactor site at Fukushima Daiichi to become too dangerous for the heroic crew of rescuers to continue their efforts. Remember those innocent times, a week or so ago, when the image of a meltdown was a screaming toddler in a supermarket checkout line? Are you watching repeating UTube videos of waves rolling in and swallowing quaint Japanese fishing villages whole, or listening to pundits interpreting puffs of radioactive steam? We don’t know how long the meantime is, how long until we know how bad it really is, and we must gather our wits and our empathy. What do we do to make this vulnerability bearable?
Our vague malaise may seem like a small burden, compared to that of the Japanese families searching for their missing loved ones, but it runs deep, and we must all find a way to cope. The world seems suddenly less safe, and this has not been a gentle awakening. We may now feel less ready to trust the reassurances of officials who recommend nuclear power as the methadone treatment for our addiction to pricey oil. We are far from Japan, but we are feeling very close right now, as evidenced by the run on potassium iodide tablets in pharmacies across America. They are available for free to residents of San Luis Obispo County, in the shadow of the Diabolo Canyon reactor in southern California. That’s the reactor, by the way, that sits on a fault line. The tablets serve no practical purpose right now, but stockpiling them seems to provide symbolic comfort. It’s doing something.
We have no appetite for glib reassurances, but words of solidarity seem to matter; even the Emperor of Japan has taken to the airwaves, for the first time. The women of my support group know nobody in Japan, but they wonder aloud what God is up to, and hope we are getting it, whatever it is. Comedians have the impulse to make jokes in dark moments, and they are largely misfiring right now. Gilbert Gottfried made a few awkward attempts at humor last week about the unfolding tragedy in Japan; they have now cost him his job as the annoying squawking duck voice in the Aflac insurance commercials. Apparently Aflac does a lot of business in Japan. The duck is temporarily silent, while they search for a replacement. Now that’s almost funny.
There are some things we can do right now. We can donate money to help survivors. To contribute $10 to the Red Cross disaster relief efforts, text REDCROSS to 90999. We can also visit the Global Giving website at www.globalgiving.org. We can pay attention, and ask our leaders hard questions in a persistent and nonpartisan way. We must limit our exposure to the scary images and dire analyses of where this could go; it’s already surpassed Three Mile Island in harm done, highly unstable, and legitimately scary. We cannot obsess, but we also cannot return to naive trust. In the company of each other, we can find the courage to bear witness, and to keep our hearts open, joined in concern for this fragile earth, our island home.