The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas began his writing career while still a teenager. He dropped out of school, much to the chagrin of his father who was an English teacher, to pursue his literary interests, and was a published author before he was twenty years of age.
His works and words were deeply emotional, charged with passion, and at times obsessed with death, particularly challenging the finality of the old Grim Reaper. One of his first publications was entitled, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” an audacious kicking against the darkness to be sure.
But his most famous work, written as his own father lay dying, is the acclaimed, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” The opening stanza, read at many a memorial service, says all you need to know about Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
These words are defiant and furious, descriptive of so many personal battles. Just observe a young person diagnosed with cancer; a soldier brought home from the battlefield with crippling injuries; a man or woman who survives that “widow-maker” heart attack. Something remarkable often happens with such people.
They have the wind knocked out of them, certainly, but they don’t lie down to die. They find the rave and rage to fight “against the dying of the light,” refusing to “go gentle into that good night.” From somewhere they find the rebellious strength to recover, to live, and to thrive.
This strength, in my experience and observation, is not superhuman, as if these individuals can conjure up an internal fortitude that others cannot tap into. It is more than the “endurance of the human spirit.” It is another kind of Spirit. It is supernatural. It appears to come from somewhere else altogether.
In Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Book of Hebrews, he talks about “adrenaline shot into our souls.” That seems to be an able description, for “raging against the dying of the light” requires more than physical strength. It takes emotional, mental, and spiritual power.
So, all this talk of defiance should not make you feel like you should try harder; that you should trim down, bulk up, work out, and dig in. It’s not like that. True power comes from powerlessness. It comes from surrender. It is the result of finding a strength outside one’s self.
In the words of the good book – that’s the Big Blue Book of A.A. – “We admit we are powerless, and believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us.” Then, the weaker one gets, paradoxically, the stronger one becomes. That is the true source of strength.
No, you don’t have to be stronger, better, faster, tougher, holier, or “more” anything. You simply have to hang in there. By God’s help and grace, you can do exactly that, and find the holy chutzpah to live the life you have been given.
“We all know things are bad – worse than bad – they’re crazy,” began the fictional Howard Beale in the film entitled, “Network.” An emotionally disturbed news anchor whose life had begun to unravel, Beale revitalizes his career by “articulating popular rage.”
He advises his audience, “I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad.”
And then, delivering one of the more classic lines in the history of all cinema, Beale (played by Oscar winner Peter Finch) says, “I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’”
Eerily prescient, screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky delivered a masterpiece with “Network,” foretelling the future of cable news when broadcast stations would make their money on being aggrieved, selling rage to a susceptible audience. For all the credible truth-seeking voices out there (and there are many), this truth remains: Media, politics, and society are filled with the Beale-like “mad prophets of the airwaves.”
They offer no light, only heat. They can produce no solutions, they can only scorch the earth. They offer neither truth nor thoughtful commentary, only divisiveness. “The acts of the flesh are obvious,” Paul said, and among them are “hatred, discord, and fits of rage.” The Proverbs warn that such people, those who deal in the currency of fermenting anger, “Plant seeds of strife…separate the best of friends; and lead their companions down a harmful path.”
We fail to heed the dangers of such paths, drawn as we are into the game of “winning.” If our side can come out on top (whichever side that is at the time), then all means to that victorious end are justified. This “winner take all approach” more times than not leaves nothing for the loser, and very little for the winner; for all that remains is wreckage.
A Southern proverb comes to mind, one I heard often growing up. I would be told, “A dog can kill any hog in the pen, son, but he’ll have to get down in the mud to do it. And the hog likes the mud.” More times than we wish to admit, that’s where uncontrolled, unbridled anger takes us. We might be the winner in the end, but are so soiled by the victory, it can hardly be counted worth it.
Returning to the furious Howard Beale, how does his story conclude? He winds up lifeless on the floor, struck down by the violence that his own madness produced, with everything he had built on bluster, crashing down with him. Unfettered, weaponized anger, rarely has any other result.
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.