Demons and Dust

Tori Murden McClure - Louisville, Kentucky
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, June 20, 2014
Tori Murden McClure

A childhood experience on a playground taught Tori Murden McClure a lesson about the importance of love and friendship that has stuck with her through the years and helped inspire her life's work.

I have demons. So what? People who have no demons are like people who have no sense of humor. They are dull. I am highly educated. So I feel no shame in telling teenagers that I rowed a boat alone across the Atlantic Ocean because I was stupid. Most women do not need to row three thousand miles to figure out that love and friendship are good things. Most women just get it. My personal demon is a sense of helplessness.

I have a brother, Lamar. He is intellectually disabled. When we were young, our family moved every three or four years. New kids on any block are always tested, often teased, and sometimes hazed. Lamar and I were accustomed to all three. I always tried to protect my brother, but I was not always successful.

When I was about twelve, Lamar and I were getting to know and be known at a new playground. I was playing basketball. Lamar was standing in his usual place at the edge of the action. A boy picked up a rock and threw it at my brother. As the boy reached out to pick up a second rock, I tackled him. I disappeared into a swirl of fists and feet. Strong hands pulled me off the boy and hauled him away for questioning. The judge and jury that afternoon was a boy named Eric Fee. Like me, Eric would have been about twelve years old. Lamar and I were accustomed to finding ourselves at the center of neighborhood controversies. They never turned out well for us. I had read about “justice,” but I had never seen it in action. Then, something inexplicable happened. Eric Fee hauled the rock-throwing boy over to Lamar and made him apologize. I could hardly believe my ears. Once the apology was complete, Eric called all the children on the playground into a circle. Eric explained that my brother could not defend himself. He declared that Lamar was to be left alone. If anyone taunted or teased Lamar, Eric promised that he would settle the score. Someone asked about me. Eric glanced in my direction and said, “I think she can take care of herself.”

By his actions, a twelve-year-old boy created peace and justice out of thin air, and I watched compassion finish ahead of competition. I went out and followed Eric’s example, as much as I could and as often as I could. With each passing year, I grew wiser, more competent, and more powerful, but no matter how hard I tried I could not make justice perfect. I could not make it reliable. Time after time, I found myself jousting with injustices that were too big for me to tackle. Each time the helplessness wore me down, I settled for doing something easy like climbing a tall mountain, skiing across a frozen continent, or rowing a boat alone across an ocean.

Eventually, I came to understand that I could bicycle to the moon, but it would not make me any less human. We are each of us an amalgam of dust and divinity. The dust is essential. It is our brokenness, our helplessness that make us human. I believe that love and friendship are the things that make our humanity bearable. Each of us is mortal, and, like Eric Fee, each of us is capable of being heroic. We need not accept realities that are not in tune with our hearts. We may not succeed in stealing fire from heaven, but the majesty of humanity lies in our willingness to keep trying.

Tori Murden McClure is the president of Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She is a graduate of Smith College, Harvard University, the University of Louisville, and Spalding University. Ms. McClure skied 750 miles across Antarctica to geographic South Pole, and she was the first woman and first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Her book is titled A Pearl in the Storm.

Recorded by Geoffrey Redick and independently produced for This I Believe by Dan Gediman