When Reese Harrison arrived at his dental office in Lynn Haven, Florida, the day after Hurricane Michael made landfall, the devastation was beyond imagination. Dr. Harrison’s building was in tact, but his neighborhood looked like it had been carpet bombed.
As his neighbors began to emerge from the wreckage of their homes, Harrison did what any Southern boy “raised right” would do: He fired up the grill. There was work to be done, and no one can cut trees, place tarps, assist the wounded, or haul debris without a good meal.
It was a dozen shellshocked locals at first, eating hamburgers, hotdogs, and whatever could be salvaged from freezers that were quickly thawing from having no electricity. Then it was a few dozen people; then hundreds; then those who arrived as the first chainsaw brigades.
When the “official” relief services rolled in, Harrison’s good graces extended to them. He pointed Red Cross and the Salvation Army to the worst neighborhoods. He fed National Guardsman, and he raided his dental office to supply F.E.M.A. with pens, paper, tables, and chairs.
The Presidential motorcade arrived in Lynn Haven on the morning I first met Reese, descending on the relief station with an army of photographers, media, and swarming Secret Service agents. I thought about the irony of it all. A man the entire world knew was handing out relief goods collected by a man that no one but his neighbors would recognize on the street.
And when the flashbulbs all faded, and the stone-faced officials with acronyms printed all over their shirts had bustled away, Dr. Reese Harrison remained. He and his collection of compassionate partners continued to run the grills, coordinate volunteers, and manage the heaps of bottled water, toiletries, and donated goods.
It’s this way in every community after every disaster, from Lynn Haven to San Juan, and Cape Hatteras to Redding. Official help is needed, and such assistance is invaluable, bringing longterm support, widespread awareness, and order to desperately chaotic situations. But it’s the “un-officials” who save the day.
It’s the volunteer firefighter who takes to the frontline before the first professional is on site. It’s the helpful neighbor risking life and limb to pull a stranger off a roof in the middle of a flood. It’s the church ladies turning out casseroles for evacuees as fast as their ovens will bake. It’s a dentist, temporarily unable to practice his craft, who saves a neighborhood and makes a lasting difference.
A mentor once told me that most people feel like they need permission or authorization to do any good in this world. But that’s not true. “You don’t have to know anything about anything to change the world,” he would say. “The people who just show up are the game-changers. That’s what we need: People who will show up, ready and willing to serve.” I couldn’t say it any better myself, and thankfully Dr. Harrison could not have lived it any better either.
One of the more articulate poets of antiquity was the harp-playing shepherd boy turned warrior and king, known as David. He wrote roughly half of the Psalms found in the Old Testament, and these ancient poems range far and wide over the emotional spectrum. He is overcome with joy and praise one minute, raw with vengeance and anger the next. He is confused by God’s silence or his own circumstances; and he is depressed, bordering on the suicidal.
To those latter emotions, Psalm 31 is one of David’s more desperate poems. He speaks of being abandoned, of tears washing his face, of feeling that his body and spirit are wasting away. Scholars believe he was a young man when he wrote those words, on the lam, hiding in a desert cave – literally and figuratively in a dark, hopeless hole – evading relentless enemies who were trying to kill him.
A phrase he uses in that Psalm is perfectly picturesque. He says, “My life is as useless as a broken pot.” He feels like shattered glass on the floor; fully incapable of holding anything; splintered into a million pieces, with no foreseeable way for those pieces to be put together again.
This language of brokenness caused me to stop when I read the Psalm recently, for my wife is an artist who creates beautiful sculptures out of broken things: Broken glass, thrown away lumber, and all manner of recycled materials, mixed with paint, clay, ceramics, and resin. If you visit our garage you will see what appears to be boxes and buckets of castaway junk. But visit her studio above that garage, and you will see the stunning results of brokenness reassembled.
This kind of art has a long tradition. One of the oldest is called “Kintsugi.” It originated in Japan centuries ago, and is the process of taking the broken shards of a pot, a plate, or a ceramic teacup, and binding these back together with lacquer or resin, dusted with gold or silver.
Kintsugi means, “the golden repair,” and artists who work with the medium would never throw a broken pot away. Instead, they pick up the pieces – no matter how many or how shattered – and put them back together, the mending becoming a masterpiece. They don’t hide the seams. The fused joints, accentuated with precious metals, become a showpiece. It is the “art of scars,” producing something more beautiful after the mending than it was before the breaking.
David would live fifty more years after writing that woeful Psalm. He would become a king, the soul of a nation, and arguably, the single most important individual in the Old Testament, if not Israeli history. The life that had amounted to no more than a broken pot, was repaired, put together again, and made stronger than ever.
In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “The world breaks everyone,” but bringing his emotions and thoughts to true and living words, he concludes, “and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
It was this week more than seventy-five years ago, that one of the most harrowing personal dramas of the Second World War played itself out on a watery stage in the Central Pacific Ocean. Carrying a classified communication to General Douglas MacArthur, Eddie Rickenbacker and his crew ditched their plane into the water after straying off course.
News of the incident caused a sensation. Captain Rickenbacker, a Medal of Honor recipient from the First World War, had been the most lethal fighter pilot in the world; had helped start a commercial airline; had founded his own automobile company; and owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. To say that he had a household name would be an understatement.
Rickenbacker took charge of the survivors who were now clinging to a nine-foot life raft that was being circled by ten-foot and longer sharks. Yet, that wasn’t the real danger, absurd as it sounds. Thirst and starvation were the enemies.
To keep up morale, Rickenbacker, who wasn’t especially religious, suggested a daily reading from a New Testament one of the men had. On the eighth day, after this morning “devotional,” there was desperate talk among the crew about cutting off some of their digits to use as fish bait. It was then, out of nowhere, that a seagull landed on Eddie Rickenbacker’s head!
Able to “hear a pin drop on the water of the Pacific,” the crew watched with famished eyes as Rickenbacker captured it. The survivors ate the gull’s flesh and used its remains to catch fish. With an immediate rain in the evening, Rickenbacker and his crew were provided the sustenance to survive.
Max Lucado added an interesting addendum to this story. He wrote that Rickenbacker, on the beaches of Coconut Grove, Florida, many decades later, would sometimes take a bucket of shrimp with him on the warm evenings. Hundreds of sea gulls would join him, and he would toss shrimp up to their hungry beaks. It was the old Captain’s way of remembering and saying, “Thank you.” He was grateful for the grace that made the rest of his life possible.
All great religions teach gratitude, but one need not be “especially religious” to embrace its benefits. Research shows that grateful people are generally more healthy, experience less anxiety, and have a more positive outlook on life. But we instinctively know this already. Just look at the first complete sentence most of us teach our children to say: “Thank you.”
One of the old hymns we sang in the churches of my youth went, “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed; when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost. Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”
That’s a good place to start. Count your blessings, your good fortunes, and the inexplicable mercies of life. Name them one by one – big, small, and in-between – and you won’t able to stop yourself from saying, “Thank you.”