Existentialism, sense of security and lessons of an earthquake

The ground is shaking. Shocked, we don’t know if we would run or freeze  and wait for it to pass. An earthquake happened to us.  How do we respond to it psychologically? Does it shake our sense of security and how can existentialism help?

All of us possess a sense of basic security that developed during our childhood. That sense helps us feel the security and reliability of things around us. It functions like an existential envelope that helps us to withstand the blows of life more easily. On the other side of the sense of security feelings of insecurity lurk. There is a dormant existential anxiety present all the time, but is kept away from us by the sense of security. It functions as a shock-absorbing envelope.

But when things happen that shake this security for us, like an earthquake or the situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, existential anxiety can suddenly erupt. This is what happened to us during the recent earthquake that shook Petrinja and Sisak with the nearest places and we felt it strongly in Zagreb and other places.

Already the coronavirus with its lockdowns and social isolation might have affected this feeling of basic security. We are deprived of daily activities that help create a sense of basic security in childhood and its further maintenance when we grow up. This might lessen the barrier that keeps existential anxiety from flooding in.

Phenomena like earthquakes strike at this sense of basic security at the most fundamental level, the physical one. What is a bigger blow to the feeling of security than a blow to the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, to the feeling that the ground will be there tomorrow also, whatever happens? The quake strikes precisely at this basic safety.

It is therefore not surprising that many symptoms occur at different levels. It is not strange that we are shaken, it is not strange that there are anxieties, fears, panic. No wonder that we are finding it hard to fall asleep and we are afraid of sounds reminiscent of that feeling just before the blow.

The earthquake shows us all the force of our being thrown into a world over which we have no control of. For a moment it shows us how fragile our sense of security is and how fragile we actually are. How easily all the things we are used to can be shaken.

We can regain our sense of security slowly. Step by step. By doing the little things we currently have control over. By accepting what we haven’t got control of. And by learning lessons.

What can we learn from this lesson on a fundamental existentialist level?

First, an earthquake can act as an instant shift of focus to what really matters to us. Who is the one we grab when we leave the house or call right after an earthquake? What is it that we grab with ourselves? What is the most important thing to have, and when does the physical reality around us begin to shake?

The earthquake, therefore, can be taken as a reminder of what really matters. The relationships we have, the people we love. Things that symbolically mean the most to us and that we grab, along with lamps and backpacks with basic necessities. From this, we can learn what is really important to us and when things around us are collapsing.

Then, all of this can remind us that we should feel grateful. For those things we can start to take for granted. Our home. To the people around us. And that we are small in front of nature, fragile. And how we should learn to respect its power and learn how to better understand it.

Then, Petrinja and Sisak. What to say? Words are missing when one sees the full force of the tragedy of the people who perished. If we are willing to hear, in this situation we can see a reminder of how we are all interconnected. On how important it is to understand that we all depend on each other and that without the well-being of some there is no well-being of others. The well-being of human beings is more important than political games and everyday trivia., we are reminded. These days we see that when people feel a call to that solidarity, everything is possible. We can have a glimpse of what kind of society we would be if we felt that way in “normal” times also. Unfortunately, it also exposes structures that do not function around us, on a social level and personally.

If we really want to learn, we can also take the earthquake as a reminder that beyond the sense of security we have every day, these other things are also glowing. Disaster, disease, death. This could do us good to face.  The possibility of these things sounds daunting…and it invites us to ask ourselves: Do we live the way we would like to live? What is really, really important to us on the core level?

What could we do today as a step in a direction that is really, really, important to us from our core?