Humans have an extraordinary power to find happiness. Despite our struggles, tragedies, losses, and failings, we often conjure up the inexplicable strength to rise above the wickedness of life, and find fulfillment. I believe it is our ability to find joy and faith in the face of evil that defines our character, defines our willpower, and defines our morality.
Last summer, I set out in hopes of helping those who had lost everything when Katrina struck. Far from California’s sunny highway 101, the road from the airport through the Mississippi bayous to Biloxi was a graveyard of broken lives, strewn with massive branches, twisted cars, broken lawn chairs, abandoned coaches–and fresh bouquets left lovingly in front of the misshapen remnants of lives lost.
The days that followed were times of discovery, discovery that destruction can give way to rebirth, misery to joy, and confusion to clarity. I soon found myself gathering debris from the soil of the forgotten. It was as if the storm had hit last night. As I raked, pile after pile, hour after hour, I noticed an older woman coming out of her small trailer, which sat in her driveway, to water a single mazanita left standing. All I could see through the waves of summer heat was her smile, as long and complex as the Mississippi River. With the unstoppable floods, she had lost her house, her five-year-old son, and everything she had ever known. Tormented with the question of how somebody who has lost so much could be so happy, I approached her, asking where she found hope in the face of evil. She replied, “Young girl, us people of Mississippi went to bed the night before Katrina on top of the world and woke up the next morning with the world on top of us. It’s hard to start over and move on at the same time, but us people of Mississippi know you’ve got to lose before you gain.”
In a place where it seemed God had turned his back, and the dead haunted the living, the survivors managed to find hope. In A View from the Abyss, by Viktor Frankl, the author describes how human kindness will always be found amidst the most evil depths of the human abyss. By choosing good over evil, hope over despair, I saw in this one survivor of Katrina’s wrath the best of the human spirit.
In recognizing the happiness in those who have lost everything, I’ve come to the realization that I too can find inspiration in my setbacks. In seeing life under the rubble and happiness in the face of devastation, I will always remember the power of the human soul, its gift of renewal, and its power of optimism. When my life succumbs to tragedy, I will have the character, the willpower, and the morality to water my single standing manzanita and to find the strength of happiness through the dividing rift of my soul. Mississippi will forever be on my mind.
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