New Orleans When we hear that someone handled something with grace, we instinctively know, deep inside, what that means, but it’s hard to put a handle on it, teach it, or pass it on. The Oxford English Dictionary takes two and half pages to try and put their arms around it for goodness sakes!
I found myself thinking of this when I read The New Yorker story of David Bradley, the very wealthy publisher of The Atlantic magazine and his role in trying to help free five hostages held, largely by ISIS, in Syria. Part of what deepened his commitment to such an extraordinary effort had been a letter he had received from James Foley, during Foley’s first stint as a hostage. Foley, once freed, had written Bradley a “thank you” note for his help. Two months later Foley wrote a second, longer “thank you” note, when he had learned more thoroughly about the special role that Bradley had played in his release then. The story by Lawrence Wright said that Bradley had copied the letter from Foley and given the copies to his children as examples of “grace.”
Grace in the religious tradition is a gift given without hope of thanks or reward, and, secularly, grace has seeped into our realities as a favor or gift without a quid pro quo or in the terms of the OED, without implying “a right or obligation.” In their more classic language grace is the “share of favour allotted to one by Providence or fortune; one’s appointed fate, destiny, or lot; hap, luck or fortune….”
Do we see so little of this now that implicitly we have to almost collect and memorialize the examples, and, if so, how tragic that we are so beggaring our lives. I found myself looking for more examples all around me.
Reading the paper, Dan Barry of the New York Times wrote a long column in which the word “grace” is never mentioned, but where it shone tellingly. He was writing the follow-up to a picture taken of an African-American South Carolina state trooper, who turned out to be Leroy Smith, the head of the troopers, helping a white, elderly, black-t-shirted protestor with a Nazi-sympathizing, racist group protesting the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the capitol. The man was suffering from what appeared to be fatigue and heat exhaustion, and Smith was helping the man up 40 stairs to the air-conditioned part of the Capitol. There’s a picture of grace. The story says an elderly white woman protestor trailed behind them asking the trooper if the other protestor was going to be all right. If she did not thank Smith, that would be a good example of the absence of grace.
Maybe it’s not so rare.
Just yesterday on a scorchingly hot New Orleans day I was driving down St. Claude within blocks of my home and pulled up to a stoplight at Desire Street. Driving this old beater, my windows are down because the air-conditioner is a historical artifact. A man approached the window from in front of the liquor store on the corner with a sweating plastic bottle of water and reached it towards me. I said, “No, I’m good,” assuming it was probably some kind of scam, like a free-window wash. He kept his hand outstretched and said, “What you’re not hot? Take this water, since we can’t drink our water anyway.” There had been a boil water notice for two days from the Sewerage & Water Board for our local water. I took the water and then noticed behind him on the curb an open blue cooler with a handwritten marks-a-lot sign saying “Hank’s Free Water” and two young children, probably his sons, standing next to the cooler.
I yelled thanks and drove the rest of the way home. I didn’t drink the water though. Only minutes before I had been reading Paul Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, about “effective altruism.” Hank and his water seemed such a vivid example of grace in action, and perhaps a small manifestation of “effective altruism,” that I knew immediately that water would never touch my lips. It would have to find its way to my children, or better, the next stranger I see hot and thirsty on the street.