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Robert D. Stolorow

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Earthquakes, Trauma, and Existential Anxiety

Posted: 01/16/10 02:25 PM ET

I live and work in Santa Monica, Los Angeles County, California. The dangerous San Andreas Fault runs through San Bernardino, California, about 75 miles from Santa Monica. The San Andreas runs along much of the western edge of North America. Where the plates on each side of the fault are smooth, as in central California, there are frequent minor earthquakes as the plates slowly move in opposite directions. In contrast, where the plates on each side are jagged and thus held rigidly in place, as in both northern and southern California, there are no such small earthquakes. Instead, the tension created by the force of the plates accumulates, year after year, decade after decade, so that when they finally move in opposite directions along those parts of the fault, the resulting earthquake is catastrophic, around 8 on the Richter scale. The San Andreas breaks in southern California on the average every 150 years, and the last big earthquake along this fault in southern California occurred in the 1850s. I, along with many Angelenos who are aware of these facts, live in a vague state of anxiety. It is an existential anxiety--about our own existence and the existence of all those whom we love.

As I previously wrote about the impact of the collective trauma of September 11, 2001, when we witness even from afar the devastation wrought by an earthquake, it shatters the illusions of safety and invincibility through which we evade our vulnerability to trauma, harm, death, and loss as constantly threatening possibilities. Earthquakes, especially catastrophic ones, shake our confidence in the very ground we stand on and confront us with the groundlessness of our existence, wherein no certainty, safety, or continuity of being can be assured. "Earthquake preparedness" is a good idea for people like us Angelenos, but in a way it too is an illusion. No one can really foresee the magnitude of the trauma and devastation that a catastrophic earthquake can wreak, no matter how much food and water we store in our basements.

In addition to doing everything we can to help the victims of a catastrophic earthquake like the one in Haiti, we need to bring into dialogue the existential anxiety that such a tragedy evokes in us, so that this anxiety can be shared and held among us, rather than evaded.