Where Do You Want To Be When The Earthquake Hits?

”I think the safest place in San Francisco in a major earthquake is the Bank of America.”

That statement is amazing, considering that the Bank of America building in San Francisco’s financial district is the second tallest skyscraper in the city.  For most of us, the thought of being in such a tall building during a big earthquake is enough to force us into an emergency potty break!

But those words were spoken by Dr. Mario Salvadori, a New York engineer who has written several standard texts on structural engineering, immediately following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco which ended up causing the collapse of some major highways, sections of bridges, and some buildings, killing several hundred people.  He’s an expert.  But his statement feels so counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

Then he explained himself:  ”We design high-rises so that their structures will stand up.  They are flexible enough to vibrate and sway, but not break up. If there are cracks, they are in things like partitions and windowpanes, not the basic frame. ”

Apparently, in planning for earthquakes, engineers today have come to value flexibility more than strength. For example, small elements of the infrastructure like gas lines and water mains are often designed with elastic loops so they bend rather than break.

Buildings are more flexible too. Dr. Salvadori compares a faulty building to a dry old tree, strong but liable to break under heavy winds, and a well-engineered one to a reed, lighter, more resilient and less likely to snap.

”A building’s ability to absorb motion is as important as its ability to withstand collapse,’‘ said Robert Silman, a New York structural engineer.

The need for flexibility was well understood by one architect who lacked the benefits of today’s advanced engineering. In his design for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, completed in 1923, Frank Lloyd Wright placed the building on a foundation that resembled floating pads. The hotel was virtually the only major downtown building to survive the earthquake that devastated Tokyo that year.

Flexibility.  Ability to absorb motion.  Pliable.  Resilient.  Bendable.  Nonrigid.  Hard to imagine words like these being used to describe stable skyscrapers.  And yet it’s true.  And as counter-intuitive as it might seem, the same words apply to effective life and spirituality.

Learning how to hold life with an open hand, learning how to be flexible and nonrigid, learning how to adapt and change when necessary, learning when it’s important to compromise and share, are not easy things to do.  What is often too easy to do is putting people (including ourselves) and life experiences and even God into boxes of simplistic expectations and definitions.  We think that by being able to define someone or something clearly enough we can be more secure in our experiences.  Our expectations can be fulfilled.  Everything will work out just the way we hoped and expected and carefully planned.

But people, life, and especially God are not that predictable.  Isn’t that what quantum mechanics is teaching us – the universe is not as orderly and simplistic as Isaac Newton once thought.  Sub-atomic particles act in often random and unexpected ways.  Things can’t always be reduced to cause and effect.

A man in one of my congregations years ago was the epitome of physical health, radically advocating a vegan diet as the only remedy for illness and a medically sound life including salvific spirituality.  He ended up dying of cancer.  Not exactly his predicted and proclaimed outcome.

Some parents I knew years ago did everything “right” (according to the parenting books and their view of Scripture).  One of their daughters ended up getting pregnant during her teen-aged years and running away from home.  Not exactly according to hoped for or predicted outcomes.

I knew a husband whose paradigm of marriage was that as long as he provided the necessary comforts of living for his wife she would be happy and fulfilled in their marriage.  “I bring home ‘the bacon’ and she’ll be happy.”  He couldn’t figure out why she was expressing such high dissatisfaction.

Let’s face it.  Sometimes our expectations and perspectives are simply misguided.  But even when we’re right, the outcomes aren’t guaranteed.  Life is messier and more unpredictable than that.  And all the experts remind us that unless we are willing to live with a degree of flexibility and nonrigidity, unless we learn how to live with an open hand and develop an ability to be pliable and absorb change, we’ll live with disappointment, disillusionment, and resentment.  We can’t put people much less God in boxes of our own construction and think we’ve figured them all out and can therefore know exactly what to expect.

One of the radically transforming views of God in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is the reality that God often acts in unpredictable ways.  Who would’ve thought God would show up in a burning bush (like God did with Moses)?  Who would’ve thought God would bring water out of rocks to quench the Israelites’ thirst in the desert on their way to the Promised Land?  Who would’ve expected the incarnated God to show up as a tiny baby in a feeding trough in a cave in Palestine?

Don’t put God in a predictable box, says scripture.  God is beyond our limited imagination and expectations.  Be open.  Be pliable.

And then Jesus ends up by shaping the same paradigm for fellow humans.  “When you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and honor the enslaved, you are doing those things to me.” It was this radical, unexpected spiritual paradigm that motivated Mother Teresa to spend her life caring for poor, dying children on the streets of Calcutta.  “Every child I hold in my arms is in fact Jesus,” she said.  Who would’ve thought that the homeless person on the street corner, or the unreasonable boss down the hall, or the obtuse spouse in your bed, was in fact Jesus?  And the truth is that even Jesus defied popular expectations and predictions with his nonconformist behavior.

We can’t put each other in predictable, self-limiting boxes, either, without doing disservice to each other and minimizing our ability to love and serve in meaningful ways.  We can’t put each other in strait jackets and hope to have deep and fulfilling relationships.  We have to hold each other with open hands, leaving room for the unexpected and unknown about each other, being willing to change and move with the shifting motion of life.  It’s an art form that takes lots of practice and patience!  I’m still working on my 10,000 hours on this one (see my last blog post).

And life continues to show that the unmovable, the rigid, the unbendable end up breaking.

Here’s the way the Tao Te Ching (authored by the 6th century B.C. Chinese spiritual philosopher Laozi) puts it:

“A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.
Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.
Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.”
(Tao Te Ching, LXXVI)

I’ll never forget being on the 23rd floor of our apartment building during the big earthquake in Seattle 8 years ago.  I was astounded at how much the building swayed – so much so that I thought for a moment we were going over!  But then I was told that we were experiencing exactly what the building had been designed to do in an earthquake.  Phew!  Definitely counter-intuitive!

Structural engineers are obviously on to something when it comes to quake-proofing buildings – develop strong structures but keep them flexible and pliable and bendable.  So when the Big One hits San Francisco, I hope I’m in the Bank of America building!

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3 thoughts on “Where Do You Want To Be When The Earthquake Hits?

  1. I definitely identify with this one! It’s so hard to resist putting others–and ourselves–into convenient boxes with big labels. I remember a new mothers’ circle that I attended several months ago. The leader intentionally had us “meet” each other without the traditional labels that we always use (e.g. job title) so that we could just experience the life-changing postpartum period as new mothers together without those labels getting in the way. It was really profound. I felt seen and like I saw people in a new way. But holding life, especially something as big and crucial as spirituality and our view of divinity with an open hand is indeed a challenge. Thanks for the reminder of its importance.

  2. Thanks for these inspiring insights! Especially meaningful to me, as I was in the BofA building in the 1989 quake, and I have a profound respect for it’s flexible design features!

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