Sunday, September 10, 2017

Our Banner in the Sky

The events of these past few weeks have been festering in my mind. Hurricanes, major forest fires, massive earthquakes . . . our planet seems to be groaning in the midst of moral and political turmoil, and the only thing I can think of is human life. Color means nothing, religious beliefs mean nothing, location is irrelevant; what matters most are lives. I don't pen this blog as a means by which to be preachy, or to wave an imaginary and morally superior finger at you. I am writing this because when tragedy strikes, it's good to regain perspective and to remember the important things in our world, which have been clouded in recent months by too many other things far less important than being able to live and breathe. While acts of nature can be horrific and devastating, they are also opportunities to do what we humans do best: pull together.

A week ago, a friend of mine brought up something important that I hadn't thought of deeply enough. He said that it seems like, in this digital age with news streaming at us at light speed and at our fingertips all day long, we, as a society, have become numb to tragedy. It's as if we have access to an "emotion epidural", he called it, which many have injected into themselves in order to avoid having to comprehend the level of pain and devastation that has occurred. Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and the latest tally says at least 70 people have died from of it. I'll risk ridicule to step up and state I'm sure most in many other parts of the United States and the world just kind of thought of this as, well, eh, that's pretty awful, and then moved on. But then my friend asked, what if those 70 people died on your block? What if, among the 70 was--heaven forbid--a friend or family member? Suddenly, that 70 takes on a whole other meaning and would likely scar you for life.

The 70 lives lost during Hurricane Harvey were each connect to many, many others. I dare even try to quantify the numbers, but I'm pretty sure we're in the thousands of other lives who are left heart broken, questioning life and meaning, and will never be the same. That might not be you or me, but it's still fact. And the numbers of deaths don't stop there. Irma has hit the Caribbean and is moving through Florida right this minute, there was an 8.1 magnitude earthquake just off the Mexican southwest coast, there are dozens of massive wild fires going on in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana; all of these current tragedies are leaving bodies in their wakes. The sad part is, for those lost, there is nothing else we can do. They're gone. But those who have had their lives upended and are fortunate enough to be alive, can certainly use help beyond a few social media posts saying your thoughts and prayers are with them. Ultimately and in humanity, there is still hope.


Our Banner in the Sky, by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), is an oil-on-paper painting symbolically showing the Union flag in the sky seemingly attached to a destroyed tree as the flagpole. Church painted this in 1861 and in response to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter which started the Civil War.

Church was a patriot and someone who expressed his hope in painting. (Some of his other works are quite marvelous to behold so I recommend checking them out when you can.) Fort Sumter was constructed after the Revolutionary War to help protect the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. The men who guarded it had no idea the Confederate Army would attack them, nor did they know they'd be caught up in the beginnings of a very bloody war that still resonates today.

I love this piece because of what it symbolizes. Even in the midst of a terrible civil war, Church was able to show hope through his work. It's one thing to be at war with another nation, but the complexities of and emotional roller-coaster that must take place in the hearts and minds of those caught up in a civil war must be much, much worse. Church, however, saw through it all and clung to his belief that hope would prevail.

By no means am I trying to demean what's happening in our world today. My heart breaks for those who have lost loved ones, had their lives destroyed, and are suffering right now to pick up the pieces. The level of hopelessness must be overwhelming and it's resonating inside me. But I also know that good is coming. Good is happening right now! Hope is very much alive as millions of dollars are being donated, others are risking their lives to help save people and animals in need, and truckloads of donated goods and supplies are making their way to the victims right this second. Why? Because others who have the means are seeing past the tragedy and doing what they can to help their fellow human beings in need. It makes for an interesting two-fold expression of hope: that there is hope to begin with, and that the acts of caring, selfless people are hope in action.

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