The ground beneath the city of Pompeii began to heave days before a crisis erupted that threatened the lives of all who lived there and in the surrounding towns. At first, residents of the Roman city did not worry. Earthquakes were a common occurrence. Life went on. Maybe a few people looked up and out, toward Mt. Vesuvius, visible in the distance. But people did not seem to connect the tremors with a possible eruption – at least not at first.
When they finally realized that the rumblings of the earth were caused by a massive volcanic explosion that would sent showers of toxic gasses and ash on them, some did leave the city and reached safety before total destruction occurred. But others did not try to leave until they were in the midst of the storm – and many, if not most, perished.
In my new book, Don’t Panic!: How to Keep Going When the Going Gets Tough, I include an excerpt from a writer who was there when Mt. Vesuvius belched death on his homeland. That Pliny the Younger, who was 18 years old at the time of the eruption, survived was remarkable, and that he insisted he shepherd his mother to safety is honorable. But what struck me most about his account (besides the fact that it is so very vivid) was that he noticed how people react in a life-threatening crisis and how their reactions directly impacted their ability to survive. Reading about what he saw and did brought to life a real crisis, and served as a lesson for today.
I thought about Pliny the Younger and Don’t Panic!... as I drove from a meeting in Ventura County, California to Los Angeles a couple of weekends ago. A wildfire was burning out of control miles away, chewing up trees, buildings, and anything else in its way, and because of the drought in Southern California and the dry air and winds, firefighters were waging a losing battle.
Before I left for my meeting, I looked at the weather reports, air quality forecasts, and roads. The air was better where I was headed, which is a blessing for someone with asthma, so I carefully packed my car with emergency supplies (just in case I got stuck), face masks in case the winds shifted, and many bottles of water.
The meeting was very fun, good hours spent with friends. But on the drive home, I noticed a thick finger of black moving ominously west. A little farther along, the finger grew larger – and closer. I noticed that the cars in the opposite lanes had their lights on and soon I knew why. Descending into the San Fernando Valley, visibility worsened, and it was necessary to drive with lights on in that Saturday late afternoon.
Fortunately, my precautions before I left held me in good stead. I used my face mask and the inside air setting on my car’s air conditioner so smelled no smoke on that long and eerie drive home (and had no asthma problem afterward).
Just in time, I arrived at my apartment – and snapped the photo that accompanies this post. The finger of smoke soon covered the sky, turning the early evening air yellow. It was necessary to turn on indoor lights because the smoke from those distant fires rendered the day night well before the sun had set. I didn’t go out again until the sky had cleared!
Those who lived in Pompeii must have seen something similar as the ash clouds belched out by Mt. Vesuvius traveled their way. As the clouds covered the air above them, and day became night, it must have been terrifying. Yet, there were people who were more prepared than those who decided to stay and “see what happened.” They left at the first notice of trouble, or they, like Pliny the Younger, thought through an escape plan, very carefully mapping out what they needed to do to make it to safety.
Looming crises are much like the clouds that erupted from Mt. Vesuvius or covered the sky on my drive home. They are “there,” visible enough that they can make us stressed, but not quite present enough so that they make us feel as if we have to jump into action. As we wait to “see what happens,” we might become disoriented. Smoke and clouds can do that. We might lose our sense of direction, too, if we don’t have adequate light and other guiding tools with us.
But if we prepare well enough, and help ourselves develop physical, emotional, and spiritual strength, we can navigate no matter how dark it might get around us. We can understand and equip ourselves with the physical things we need to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, including emergency supplies, extra water or medications, alternate routes to travel, and a fully charged cellphone!
We can also know ourselves well enough so that we can override any panic or anxiety we might feel. These stressful emotions can cause us to “freeze” or make moves that are to our detriment. But they don’t have to; with enough understanding and assurance, we can overcome them and courageously face trials.
In the midst of the crisis at Pompeii, the Younger Pliny describes people who prayed and others who railed against the Roman gods. At times of crisis in our lives, keeping our faith strong enables us to bring God with us, and not create a barrier to the spiritual strength we need to weather storms. As I drove along the smoky freeway, I thanked God for being present, for the good function of my car’s air conditioning system, and for the smooth flow of traffic all along the way!
Don’t Panic!... contains many examples of other crises that I and others have lived through and offers very real ways to build greater resilience and strength – body, emotion, and soul. Difficult, even harrowing experiences might loom in the distance, but if we consciously work on our strength at all times, when those dark clouds near, we need not panic.
We will be blessed!