“Please, please, you need to head to your safe space…”
Just after midnight on March 3, I awoke to the sound of sirens going off and storm winds as strong as an oncoming train rushing past my bedroom window. News reporters on Facebook Live broadcasted frantic warnings for people to take cover from a nocturnal tornado ripping through downtown Nashville. The funnel cloud—which almost nobody but graveyard crane operators could see—touched ground for ten miles, and what followed was an hour of death and destruction.
Before this EF-4 tornado, the only time I had heard the phrase “safe space” was on university campuses and in the counseling office of my EMDR therapist. California, where I’m from, doesn’t have basements or storm cellars. Not only did I not know what a tornado warning sounded like; I had little sense of what it meant to find shelter, except for a vague remembrance of “don’t huddle in a room with windows.” The tornado didn’t impact our neighborhood, but the crux of the damage was a mere five miles away.
In EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), the therapist helps their client establish a “safe space” before beginning the process of trauma exploration and memory retrieval. This space can be anywhere in the client’s imagination that fosters feelings of calm and stability. Because life is no respecter of personal timelines, I had just decided to start EMDR therapy again three weeks before this natural disaster hit to rewire some lingering brain patterns that had gotten stuck in trauma. Which was more or less the same time a global pandemic hit. Almost overnight, my focus had to move from my own symptoms to surrounding districts that had just been directly hit by a tornado, as well as surrounding nations falling prey to the coronavirus. My body grew numb, as the world grew louder, resounding with what Scripture describes as labor pains.
It’s incredible how our fear response cycle works in a state of emergency and how God designed our bodies to use adrenaline to accomplish what needs to get done. You read the news articles. You mark yourself safe. You get on a bus with 50 strangers and drag fallen trees out of yards. You respond to the texts lighting up your phone.
Then it hits you.
Four days later, my emotions started to catch up with my body. The numbness dissolved as I wept at involuntary times of day, reading stories of victims who had lost their homes or their lives. A panic attack came on after waking up every few hours to ambulance sirens. (Note: if you have emotional sensitivity to visual images, it’s important to know your own biological chemistry and to limit your media input when necessary.)
Before we knew it, the COVID-19 epidemic turned into a pandemic. I grew angry by the shelter in place orders being established (even while understanding them), when only last weekend a staggering 30,000 volunteers had signed up to help with Hands On Nashville relief efforts—efforts that were still very much needed. We shouldn’t be shut up in our homes, I thought, pacing back and forth. We should be out helping. After all, how do people #stayhome after being displaced from the very places that should have kept them safe? I have never been so internally conflicted. What was our moral responsibility? What was our response as Jesus followers? I didn’t know anyone who had gotten sick from this virus, but I did have friends whose home was now rubble. But the reverse was also true. There were people with friends sick in the hospital who knew nothing about the storm that had hit our town, and it only affirmed the reality that none of us is ever untouched by suffering. The world was no respecter of Nashville’s recent pain, just like the tornado had been no respecter of mine or anyone else’s.
How do we as individuals, who still have individual needs, operate during a time when a global crisis overshadows the personal?
We adapt. We stay home. While medical personnel and grocery clerks fight on the front lines, others withdraw to protect the vulnerable. There will be a time to continue personal healing journeys because these matter deeply to God and don’t just vanish with catastrophe. If anything, they’re amplified. But, for now, we recognize that some of them must be put on hold, just as the normal rhythms of our world are put on hold. Thank God for the rare opportunity to be awakened from our self-obsession and for the chance to embrace our global suffering with solidarity.
Friends, I can’t begin to describe the beauty I’ve bore witness to since these two crises within the last three weeks—specifically within beloved Music City. People have shown extravagant benevolence and generosity since the tornado. Artists and business owners have demonstrated unparalleled levels of innovation and creativity. Almost every night of the week, there’s a new live show online, or a story/poetry reading, or extended grace periods. The Rabbit Room community alone raised $101,000 within a week for Eric Peters, a local songwriter whose family home was lost.
The human spirit is so resilient.
In this world of ours, the honest truth is that the only truly safe space is in the arms of Christ. He is our refuge in nocturnal storms and our anchor in chaos. He is the Redeemer of our stories. At the end of the day, as we gaze out rain-streaked windows, if we find any hope it’s because we can say with confidence: “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow… great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”
During this time of uncertainty, here is a poem by Wendell Berry (“The Peace of Wild Things”) and a song by Drew Miller (“Psalm 126”) that have comforted and calmed my spirit. Together, as we accept the invitation to partner with God in not only our own personal stories of healing, but those of our greater region and our globe, we can still find peace. We can still find beauty and hope. For, if nothing else, we can count it an honor to fellowship with Christ as we taste in his sufferings.
Lord, have mercy. Christ have mercy.