I was finishing up a client meeting, saying my good-byes and getting ready to head back to the hotel. Then the rumbling started. I made eye contact with Matt and immediately saw what WTF looks like when it’s plastered across someone’s face. It initially looks like surprise that fades to shock and panic, followed by the need to do something - anything - to change the situation at hand. I used to work in the basement of a hotel. They were widening the highway for the better part of a year and that meant blasting into deep rock nearby nearly every day. Around noon and again close to 4 PM I heard a basal rumble for a few seconds. Sometimes, things in my office would rattle. Eighteen floors of concrete and steel were above my head, but I never worried. Any worry that would have popped up would last far longer than the rattling, so what was the point?
An earthquake is different. You feel the initial jolt and then it intensifies. And it keeps on. What you thing may have been a blast or a gust or a wreck turns out to just keep going. As it did, I knew we had to get out of the building. Having never been in an earthquake, I didn’t know if this one was bad or regular, but I knew it wasn’t good. We were on the top floor, so I didn't have that many tons of concrete and steel that could fall on top of me, but if the floor below me gave way, I had a long way to fall.
I didn’t know what the procedure was to leave the building, but I know that I have never wanted to not be somewhere as badly.
I asked where the nearest stairwell was. As I exited my client’s office, people flooded the hall and then the stairway. When you’re making your way out of a building quickly in a sea of people, you start counting floors on your way down, both to know how many you have to go until the lobby and how many floors can fall on top of you.
We made it outside. The streets began filling with people nearby, telling me this wasn’t something that only affected our building. I glanced north and saw a crew working on street repairs. Maybe they hit a gas main, I thought.
As Matt and I turned south, we saw more and more buildings full of people pour out onto the street. Traffic was scarce. “Check Twitter,” I told him. Sure enough, people were lighting it up with quick sentences about what they just felt. Not just people in DC, though. People in New York. And South Carolina.
I texted my immediate family to tell them there was an earthquake in Washington, DC, and that I was okay.
I’ll never forget what it feels like for an entire building to shake like that.
Traffic soon filled the streets. Eventually, people who couldn’t reenter offices went to bars and restaurants to hang out and talk. News - both formal and informal - was hard to come by. Everyone was texting, calling, and checking for updates. Networks were overloaded. The tools and toys we bought promising immediacy seemed to provide anything but in the face of urgency.
We gathered our things from our hotel. With the streets jammed, we walked forever to catch the train to the airport. Plans that we expected to take minutes took hours. Everything slows down in the face of the unexpected.
On the train to Baltimore, people - complete strangers - were talking to each other. When cell phones are jammed and it takes a half an hour to send a text message or check email, you give up. You silence the thing and put it in your pocket.
And then a beautifully odd thing happens. When distraction is removed or made difficult, humans begin to connect with each other. In an instant, unexpected and universal tragedy links us to our shared humanity.
Silent nods were exchanged, as if to say, “I know what you went though. I went through it, too.” And from there, conversation can flow. Understanding can happen. Community can begin.
People show each other pictures of kids. “Where are you from?” starts a story that leads to a reply of another story, and before long, smiles form and people forget the panic they experienced four hours earlier. They’ve made a friend. On a day they weren’t planning to.
This is what’s missing from debates about healthcare and welfare. We don’t consider a shared humanity when we pontificate about tax cuts and debt ceilings. By divorcing the real world of humanness from our larger community issues, we get neither humanity nor community, and we are the lesser collectively for it.
Those who rail against divorce forget that even the best marriage can be destroyed in an instant. People who claim what’s best for you often overlook what it’s like to be you. Death and life happen in an instant - every instant. It’s time we make sure our instants are chances to rediscover what it means to be deeply connected to all of those around us.
None of us hopes for disaster or longs for catastrophe, but we know that out of such rubble can come fertile soil to build possibility. And too often, we forget that what happens to them can happen to us. An earthquake that stretched from Charleston to Boston shook some people out of their isolation and caused them to look at - and not overlook - someone else.
Such is a foundation that we can build a wonderful world upon.