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Alex Villa

On Deriving Strength from Tragedy

September 19, 2020

Mexico City a few days before the 2017 earthquake. That building with the Takis advertisement...crumbled down before my eyes.

This picture was taken on early September, in the 4th floor AirBnb I was renting before the tragic 7.1 earthquake that brought tragedy to the city. The building on the left, with the "Takis" sign on it, crumbled down before my eyes, killing some of the 370 lives that the tragedy took away. Little did I know that this picture would represent a snapshot of a before/after trauma forever.

The Obligatory Backstory

The 19th of September marks the third year since I survived from a terrible earthquake in Mexico City and feeling like my brain wasn’t going to recover from that.

These type of fear-inducing, hopelessness injecting events that remind us, not only of our own mortality, but of human suffering and collective mourning, have a very powerful influence on our brains, on our own understanding of reality and life.

At least they do for me. 2017 changed my life forever, with pain and literal death in front of my eyes as I watched a building collapse with my neighbors inside, after running for my own life while tumbling down on the stairs.

Those were the longest 90 seconds of my life. No wonder this year feels like a decade for most of us.

As everything felt on slow motion, I resorted to the form of spirituality I’m a deep believer of: nature being a single conscious entity, and connected my brain through the best place of healing I could find, in the middle of fear.

During that time, I was reading a wonderful book by Mexican philosopher, Jacobo Grinberg, Syntergic Theory, it makes sense that I had my brain open to see the world as an interconnected lattice.

The next few days were a collection of a lot of kilometers cycled around the city, trying to feel like my friends and I were “helping”. Everybody in the city that was able to was out there: some picking up stone by stone from the shattered buildings, in the hope of finding people alive, other setting up stations for food and drink for all the volunteers, others - like us - moving the goods around the city on bikes, the only medium that didn’t need to respect the dozens of closed streets because of collapse.

Cycling those streets was the type of mindfulness I needed. No wonder cycling around Berlin is feeling so healing.

But that sense of helping others, that feeling of connection of humans doing the best for each other, that was the actual treasure hidden on this tragedy for all of us.

These massive tragedies and hard times come with hidden gifts, but you have to let yourself see them and let them become healing tools in your toolkit.

Resilience derived from tragedy

The first one is resilience. That sense of discomfort triggers a “fight or flight” response on our brains.

The Stoics were onto something: their school of though while, created thousands of years ago by a very privileged group of people, and often misinterpreted among the more privileged crowds in present day, offers a timeless concept to humanity: memento mori. Remember you could leave this life at any moment. Make peace with that thought, derive gratefulness from being alive, and then, live your best life accordingly.

The National album “Sleep Well Best” was the soundtrack of my days during the 2017 Mexico earthquake, and it led me back to this stoic concept.

There’s a song, “The Day I Die”, that came to my mind on a minor earthquake, non damaging, that happened 7 days before the terrible one. I told a friend that the thought of this being the day I died had crossed over my head while listening to the song again, and she thought I was being insensitive and joking. But I was serious.

Accepting the possibility of death and learning to mourn the deaths of others, massively, is a necessary rite of passage for us humans. It can become a lot of things: stoicism, depression, anxiety, nihilism, or a form of all of the above and others.

Taking the “fight” route led me to be able to see today that, cold showers of life show up at any moment, with tears, with pain, but hidden inside of it, resilience.

Gratitude derived from tragedy

Then there’s gratitude.

In the middle of all of the despair, of the uncertainty, closed streets, shut down electricity, anxiety episodes…there were the volunteers that stayed up entire nights, removing stone by stone in the hope of finding a human, still alive.

When the possibility of approaching a living human body came close by the expert rescuers and their fucking amazing rescue dogs, they asked for silence.

The signal was a fist in the air, which everybody would repeat when they saw it. The scene was this: 3am in Mexico City on a closed street of a poor neighborhood, hundreds of people in line, willing to volunteer when others needed rest, rescuers with their helmets on, every single one of these souls with their fists up to the sky and in complete silence, with hearts beating like one. Hope in the air. Ambulances ready. The outcome varied, but that moment…those precious seconds of shared hope, were a truly spiritual union that cannot be yet described by the books of any modern religion.

This feeling of unity brought gratitude for the hope hidden in this tragedy for those of us who witnessed it, either live, or on tv, or by hearing the story from others. These made us know that there was hope in each other.

And above everything, that we had been the lucky ones to survive another day.

See the gratitude?

Present day

2020 is turning to be the cold shower of years. A cold shower hurts you, reminds you of your humanity and then, you get on survival mode and end up deriving strength and perspective.

This year is being hard, human connection and access to the things that we all need in so many ways , it goes from the sheer basic human need of a paying job for some, mental health crisis for others, being able to see our families, mental health havens like traveling or concerts, etc. A combination of everything.

But then again, staying around is forcing us to think about our purpose, our own mortality and what it feels like to mourn.

Doing things for others is probably one of the most healing things we can do on these hard times, and balancing that out with introspection, looking to be our best, stronger selves, in order to be able to show up for others.

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