They found a lady Thursday who had been listed as missing all week in the tornado-wracked city of Joplin, Missouri. She was sitting in front of the wreckage she once called her home. Placidly stroking her cat as she sat on an old beach chair, she told a visiting reporter who showed her the list: “Oh, my! You can take my name off now; I am perfectly fine.”
This capped a strange series of events around the country, all of them leading us to reflect on the power of the momentary event to alter the course of one’s life. Some of these stories could be narrated by beginning with the old cliché: “There I was, walkin’ down the street, mindin’ my own business, when suddenly…” Others involved bad personal choices in the line of: “There I was, on top of the world, with a wonderful life, beautiful family and friends, when unaccountably I…”
Joplin came first and other Midwestern cities followed, as the whirlwind disrupted the breezy flow of life in the heartland. Homes, businesses, farms, nurtured by the dew of human perspiration, had once flourished in these environs. Then came devastation, a tempestuous visitation of all that is harshest in the natural realm. It blasted through in an eldritch cacophony and then there was silence amid the ruins.
This was the ultimate act of God, inuring to man via his lot rather than his will. Man’s power of choice enters only in the aftermath, as he determines his degree of acceptance of the past, his degree of resolve to build the future.
Contrast this with the power of man to destroy himself. Dominique Strauss-Kahn comes for a few days to New York City, a plutocrat who spends more on a suit than most of us spend on a vacation, who spends more on one night in a hotel than most of us spend on our entire wardrobe. He is the acting head of the International Monetary Fund and the leading Socialist politician in France. He has not yet announced his candidacy for President of France, but already he leads in the polls with 30 percent support.
Then he comes out of the shower in his pricey hotel suite and the chambermaid catches his fancy. He follows the impulse into antisocial behavior and from there into criminality, and before you know it, he is the ex-head of the IMF, indicted for sexual assault and confined to house arrest awaiting trial. (This incident fascinated me in particular, because I once endured a week of stalking by a hotel chambermaid, complete with love notes, slips of paper with her phone number and following me down the corridor making seductive sounds.)
From there to Elizabeth Smart, whose life was upended by human volition, except that the chaos was wreaked upon her, not by her. We all remember the story of this sweet girl from a homey family in Utah, who was abducted by a home invader who came in through a window and took her out through a door. She was found and rescued months later, her innocence trampled but her spirit resilient. This week she delivered a proud testament to her own recovery as the court sentenced her kidnaper and rapist to be confined for the remainder of his days on earth.
This was an act of man, but it struck Elizabeth’s life like an act of God. Her moment of upheaval stretched into months of desperation, and hopefully she can sustain the path of healing.
Which brings us to John Edwards, a man who nearly became our Vice President. This week the United States Department of Justice recommended he be prosecuted for various violations attendant upon his affair with a campaign aide in 2008. Not long ago he was one of the most respected political figures in the most powerful country in the world and now people brush past him brusquely without shaking his hand.
There is no more joy in seeing Strauss-Kahn and Edwards brought down by venery than in seeing Elizabeth Smart trying to rebuild her dignity or in seeing the old lady in Joplin cradling her cat amid the havoc. The continuity of life is difficult to maintain. We try to control the parts that are ours, always mindful that we can be quickly leveled by the parts which are beyond our control.
King David said (Psalms 27:1): “Do not boast about tomorrow, because you do not know what a day might bring.” King Solomon added (Ecclesiastes 9:8): “At all times your clothes should be white…” Perhaps it is time for us to inspire ourselves with a variation on the classic bumper sticker: “Today may not be the first day of the rest of your life…” Let us turn things around and suddenly, unaccountably, do something especially grand. This is our moment to shine…