You and I may not have encountered a disaster as widespread as the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. But we all have stressors and challenges that can teach us surprising lessons.

Thirty years ago in January 1991, I traveled with an American humanitarian group to the Exclusion Zone, an 18-mile area tainted by unseen radioactive nuclides that spewed from the ill-fated Chernobyl reactor. We were a handful of the first foreigners admitted into the Zone from Belarus—almost four and a half years after the horrendous nuclear disaster.

Belarus (still Byelorussia during our visit) was still under Soviet control. It was honestly creepy to think that many eyes were watching our every escorted move. As we approached the gated entrance to the Zone, a number of armed guards from the Communist regime quizzed our government hosts. We were placed on a dilapidated, old minibus and waved onward.

Hostages of Uneasiness

A suffocating uneasiness held the Byelorussian people hostage. I sensed the heaviness myself when our cell phone-sized dosimeter soared within the Zone to indicate dangerous radiation levels—10 times higher than what is considered safe. We were now roughly four miles from the crippled reactor number 4. Fortunately, we were not inside the Zone long enough to cause us any physical harm, but it was certainly disconcerting to see those radiation millirad levels rise.

In the evacuated village of Dyornovichi, we poked around soberly in an abandoned kindergarten room scattered with dusty toys, dolls and books layered in dense dust. Recollections of teachers and children in this classroom had hauntingly faded. Later our group lingered around the playground and eerie ghost town, taking photos and conversing with our hosts about the disaster. But I reached my max.

I had already spent hours and hours visiting with radiation-ill children in hospitals and orphanages. Several Byelorussian families pleaded with me for extra help from America. I had recorded the angst and anger and bewilderment and bravery of the local folks.

By the time I had walked around the desolate Dyornovichi and scribbled notes for my article, I needed a mental and emotional break. So I slipped away to our 1960s-style minibus and closed the rickety door.


Unplug and Cocoon

Somehow I hoped the rusty metal and airy windows would protect me from the radiation fallout entrapping everything in this once-vibrant community. But perhaps more importantly, I needed a place to unplug from the sadness, the invisible assailants of radioactive poisons around me. I needed to cocoon a bit from the disaster realities and let my mind and heart settle.

You know, I see similarities of my need to escape a bit inside the Zone and how I feel about the COVID pandemic and societal messes today. I think we all at times need to find a mini oasis in our overloaded world to just unplug and cocoon. While the riled-up ruckus roars, we can turn down the volume and chill.

Maybe none of us have a rickety old bus to escape too, but we can find solace in other ways. Taking a leisurely walk. Soaking in a luxurious bubble bath. Napping without interruptions. Turning off the news and putting on a comedy show instead. Enjoying a favorite meal with our favorite people. Chatting with loved ones via phone and video conferencing. The ways to retreat and regroup are endless.

Settle and Be Still

Granted, I could only enjoy about five minutes of reprieve inside that archaic bus in the Zone, but it gave me plenty of time to talk to my Creator. It is still one of my most-practiced ways to settle and be still. And John 14:27 is one of my go-to verses when I feel rattled and want to run from my problems. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

So how about you? You ready for slipping away to your own mini oasis? I do recommend something a bit more comfortable than a plastic bus seat in the middle of a ghost town, but hey, I’ll leave the location up to you. Sometimes we just gotta work with what is already in front of us.