Friday, June 22, 2012

Touched by the Divine

I live in Tornado Alley where blaring sirens are a familiar sound. We who live in cloudy regions grow so familiar with these storms that many of us do not go immediately underground as the sirens would have us do. Instead, we go outside to study the clouds.

Sirens are not our only warning. Local weather stations provide weather alerts by television, computer and cell phones. Local weathermen override national programming to bring us up-to-the-minute, up-close-and-personal accounts from storm chasers and helicopter pilots hired by the stations. We know the grainy nature of cell phone video showing a twister in the distance. We also know the dreadful odds against us when the storms come at night.

I have witnessed the rubble left by the infamous F-5, mile-wide tornado that decimated communities from Bridge Creek through Moore and on to Del City on May 3, 1999. Seeing entire homes reduced to toothpicks and gravel taught us that buildings and monuments are impermanent. We learned about fear and frailty from those most affected. We also know something about heroes.

On May 4, 1999, survivors scrambled to find safe havens. Relatives took in family; churches and schools became shelters; and every apartment nearby was suddenly and profitably inhabited. But a few remained blissfully unaware and insensitive. One teacher in our district suffered criticism from colleagues who spoke to him about his casual dress. Worse, they claimed, was the fact that he wore the same shirts and denim jeans in a single work week. He had to explain to them that he had a much smaller wardrobe after F-5 winds sucked his clothes into oblivion.

What impressed me above all else during the aftermath was one couple featured on the nightly news. They stood behind long tables, serving soups, sandwiches, and casseroles to those who’d lost everything, especially electricity and gas for appliances and light; water in which bathe; and a roof over their heads. Someone must have alerted the reporter to the fact that this couple could easily have stood in line with their hands out for food, blankets, and hand-me-down clothing. They too had lost everything: treasured photographs of their children as infants, keepsakes from their own childhoods, and comfortable pillows for their weary heads.

“I’ve learned that you two lost everything,” the reporter announced.

“Yes, our home and its contents were destroyed.”

“But you’re working to help people who’ve lost everything . . . no one would criticize you if you just sat back and let others do the work.”

“We still have each other, and that’s enough. It’s more than some people have now. How could we look the other way?”

I had tears in my eyes then as I did earlier on April 19, 1995 and September 11, 2001. I would cry again when Hurricane Katrina sufferers helped each other, when Japanese citizens went about their lives under a cloud of radiation, and when compassionate teams traveled to Haiti, or any number of other places of devastation. What moved me then and moves me now is the selflessness of all those people. They have a touch of the divine, the most mature type of love, the love that is godlike.

Sister Helen Prejean is such a person. She set her fears and confusion aside to stand by a killer while he made his torturous way to honesty and death. She held the hands of his victims’ parents, guiding them toward forgiveness and health.

Mrs. Leymah Gwobee is another person in touch with the divine. She led the Market Women of Liberia in bringing about peace and the fall of Charles Taylor through civil disobedience. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a similar mission: to bring down segregation and restore hope to millions. He sacrificed for his mission and forgave his oppressors.

All three of these familiar heroes summoned courage in the face of evil. They stood before those with weapons raised to destroy them even though odds were heavily against them. They are real-life figures, typical of literary figures created to celebrate man’s greatest triumph: rising above his own self-interests in favor of the greater good.

These three are real-world heroes, but they have mirror images in fiction, all in possession of a divine, selfless love for others. So when searching literature for divinity, consider that Oklahoma couple, Sister Helen Prejean, Mrs. Leymah Gwobee, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or all of the stories listed below:

•    Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account Of The Death Penalty In The United States by Helen Prejean
•    Dead Man Walking, a 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, directed by Tim Robbins
•    Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a 2008 documentary directed by Gini Reticker and recounting the story of the Market Women of Liberia
•    Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War by Leymah Gbowee
•    A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington
•    An HBO documentary entitled The Witness, a film that uses the recollections of the Reverend Samuel (Billy) Kyles to tell the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis in the spring of 1968
•    The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, noting the characters of Anatole and Leah
•    Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, noting the character of Sonia.

Writing Challenge:

Invent or record the story of a person with a touch of the divine, someone who sacrifices, displays courage, and forgives enemies and oppressors.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

The topic of today’s post is divinity in humans so the question of capitalizing words such as god, godlike, and godly may occur to you. It’s really an easy question to answer.

If you invoke the name of the one, true god according to a religion, then yes, you capitalize the word just as you would capitalize any proper noun, but adjectives and adverbs related to divinity are not capitalized.

•    I will ask John for help.
•    I will ask God for help.
•    I will ask the gods of weather to give us sun tomorrow.
•    Early Greeks often made sacrifices to their gods.
•    Humans have godlike potential.