On December 24th, 2004 one of my oldest and dearest friends was swept out to sea by a tsunami.
I had no idea she was on a small island off the coast of Thailand, but had thought her safely at home in Shanghai celebrating Christmas.
She sat on the beach that morning eating her breakfast at a small table and admiring the natural beauty.
She watched the waters roll backwards and then roar back a hundred stories tall.
She and her husband were both injured but they were luckier than many others. They survived.
Some months afterward, she wrote me a letter. She included an account of her adventure, though that’s not how she saw it. To her of course it was a nightmare. Separated from her husband, helpless against tons of water, drowning, panic-stricken, immobilized by fear, she watched people die. Most of us never face a natural disaster. Or see someone die completely unable to help them.
Most of us watch CGI scenes in movies and dismiss the storms, earthquakes as we dismiss the flying bullets and, usually, lack of blood. We are largely desensitized.
I think writing about her experience was cathartic for her. It was very hard for me to read. The experience raised many questions in her mind. Naturally as she was brought face to face over and over again with her own mortality.
But it wasn’t this that continued to trouble her. It was her own reaction to the events.
She questioned her bravery. She questioned what kind of a person she is. Her morality, her integrity, her generosity even.
I know her well. She is a loving person with a huge heart, boundlessly unselfish, a constant emotional support to her friends. She is a teacher. Her whole life is about giving.
But she felt that she had been cowardly. Had thought only of herself and her survival. That she had been tested and come up lacking.
I think, because she lived, did not die saving someone else. There was guilt in having survived.
She said that I would not have acted as she did. But I know this is untrue.
What is heroism? Those same disaster movies give us these super-human characters (hello Bruce Willis, Sly Stallone, Will Smith) who don’t have any real super human qualities but are able to surmount fear and pain better than the rest of us.
I’d like to point out that they are rarely female either, though one would think that since women are built to withstand the pain of child-birth, we are physiologically better suited.
Because of how she felt, what she went through I began to think about heroism, selflessness, and most importantly FEAR. It’s said that a brave person is someone who perseveres when they are scared, who overcomes those emotions and physiological reactions that freeze us in place, unable to act, or send us off into panicked flight.
I don’t think you can be brave without being scared because the test of bravery is in what follows after the brain tells the body to freeze or run.
Because of my friend I wanted to write a book about a girl who faces her fears. They don’t mysteriously vanish. She may subdue one, only to have another pop up. She has many. She is fearful. She perseveres. She makes hard decisions because she wants to do the right thing, and most of all she wants to survive.
I think it takes a brave person to survive when everything is lost.
A person like my friend.
I hope she knows this now.