There she sat. Silent in the sweltering heat of the Deep South. You could see in her eyes exhaustion as the sticky heat fell over her. And I saw something else that was not readily noticed, unless you were watching. It was wisdom. No relief in sight. No air conditioning, no way to clean herself, to brush her teeth, comb her hair or find food. I wondered if she had a place to use a bathroom. Just sitting on a battered aluminum lawn chair in the sweltering heat of the post Katrina hurricane. And yet all around her were angry, brittle people who were intolerant of their circumstances unable to address the discomfort of nature without expressing anger. I saw them jumping in front of the news camera yelling about every atrocity they were suffering.
But not that woman in the lawn chair.
She was old, I would say maybe in her 70s or 80s. She was black. And she was wise. That is what I saw. She had probably seen so many things in her life time that she knew that sitting there conserving her inner resources was the best thing she could do. All around her younger, angry people sallied their inner strength to be angry, threatening and acts with violence. Exhausting what little strength they had.
I am not black. I am not from the Deep South. I do not know what it would be like to have experienced a lifetime in the Deep South. But I do know what it is like to learn from living in the Deep South for ten years on a day to day basis what those around me have experienced. I do know that while living in the south during the aftermath of Katrina what was being done was not jiving with what I saw on the news.
For example, I heard that the people were not being cared for. And yet as I went about my daily business I saw donation places set up all over my area. It was normal to see volunteer utility trucks moving southwest from as far away as Ohio or Illinois to aid along with semi trucks loaded with supplies. During the clean up I was flying home from Texas to Alabama. On my plane was a famous actor, Debbie Reynolds. She offered to buy everyone on the plane a drink for the work they were doing with Katrina. I was not one of them going into this area but when I looked around me I realized almost the entire plane were every day people like you and me moving south to help out. No one heard about this. And, what many didn’t hear on the news was that some roads were washed out, impassable so what seemed to some a lack of caring was inability to get through to help.
I even heard from friends in Europe that on their news it was saying how cruel we were to the Katrina victims. How could they know that living so far away? No matter what my husband and I said, about what we saw around us they could not accept it because the news said differently. For the first time in my time life I realized the power of the press. The power to shape in our minds what they want us to hear.
This woman. The woman just sitting there in her lawn chair strikes me even today, years later. The dignity that she displayed silently, if you were watching it said mountains about her. Her dignity shining through, completely different from those yelling and angry. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because their noise was so loud. But I heard her, loud and clear. I heard how she was suffering in the heat. If you have never been in a post hurricane situation in the humid south you have no idea the intensity of heat and humidity that waifs over you. My mind wandered to harsher times when there was no air conditioning in the south, just days like this day that this woman sat through in the lawn chair. When many, those who may have been ancestors, endured under harsh conditions. How lucky we are to have this modern convenience.
Now I see those in the aftermath of Sandy with just the opposite conditions. Cold beyond measure trying to overcome difficulties as the northern winter rests on them like a heavy cloak. Reminded once of again of those in the past with no creature comforts that survived those dreary winters in the Northeast. Their’s is a misery with not enough heat.
Misery beyond measure in a culture that has become accustomed to knowing they can protect themselves against the elements. Until, well they just can’t. That is when you see the mettle of the person. That is when I saw the mettle of that woman in the lawn chair. I admire that even today. I want to be like that, enduring much like that. The Japanese culture has a name for that, they call it gaman. Which is “a Japanese term of Zen Buddhist origin which means “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”.
I do not see that much in our culture. Enduring in patience and dignity. I think that we believe that seeing those with patience and dignity are demonstrating apathy. But apathy is a state of indifference. I do not think the woman in the lawn chair was indifferent. There were way too many external negatives such as hunger, heat, and lack of hygiene to be apathetic about what was going on. What I do think is, she knew the difference.
This woman. The woman in the lawn chair continues to be a silent lesson to me as I see the anger around me, the news being reported with half truths stirring everyone into a state of agitation. This woman taught me to calm myself so I can hear the truth. Twice this week I have listened to important news. Twice I walked away and realized that what was said was not true and would be treated at truth. I believed it immediately in my emotional state but when I asked myself, do I really see that to know and no, I do not.
Gaman is what this woman in the lawn chair was experiencing. She may not have been a buddhist. In fact, I am absolutely sure she was not. But the experience was the same.
What I know for sure (as Oprah always says) is that anger clouds the mind. That not checking what we see from what we hear makes us sheep following a propaganda engine. And I hope that the next major issue I face people will see me in that lawn chair with dignity and patience. And that my silence will be the best reply to a fool.
“One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”
― Michael J. Fox