Explosive Matters

Harry T. Moore celebrated Christmas and his wedding anniversary on the same day in 1951. Retiring to bed at 10:30, he and his family had their sleep interrupted by a bomb that shattered the house and ultimately killed Harry and his wife Harriette. What was Harry’s offense? Had he whistled at a white woman? Did he have the temerity to work on his own account rather than toiling in the orange groves? Was he just at the wrong place at the wrong time?

Apparently, Harry’s death came because he had angered the wrong people by insisting on justice for Florida’s African-American citizens. Probably the most aggressive thing the man did was write letters to the governor as the state head of the NAACP.

I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Devil in the Grove, a Pulitzer-winning book by Gilbert King, and this morning’s installment involved the events described above. In fact, I haven’t even gotten as far as Harriette’s death but felt compelled to write these things.

As a child of the 1960s, someone who has lived through any number of After-School Specials, documentaries, and dramas about the Civil Rights Movement, I know a lot of these stories. I’ve heard about Rosa Parks and the 16th Street Baptist Church girls. I’ve seen the events portrayed in newsreel footage and dramatized.

So why is this book making me feel so much more strongly? Why am I more outraged at this account of 70-year-old injustices than I have, I think, ever been before? At least once a year, I teach Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal,” the first chapter in Invisible Man, and I am struck by the masterful way that Ellison presents the complexities of segregated life and his psychological response to it. I think that’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read, but, despite its power, I’ve never had it bother me as much as King’s book. Why?

Something has changed, and it clearly isn’t the events. Although the “Groveland Boys” case is not one I knew previously, it’s not remarkably different from many others I do know. So what has changed? There are perhaps two reasons for my different response.

First, the writer might have changed. Gilbert King might just be that good of a writer. He did win a Pulitzer Prize after all. Maybe he  has just reached into my mind and touched all the right synapses to stir my heart like these things never have. (Should I be bothered that it took a white man’s account to stir me, a white man?) Frankly, I don’t think that’s the explanation.

Second, the reader has changed. I’d like to think that I have been a caring and empathetic person for all of my adult life. I’d like to think that I never would have taken the ordeals faced by people like Moore lightly. In reality, I’m pretty sure that I can think those things, but I’m not sure that I’ve always felt them as deeply as I should.

In Luke 10, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to expand his hearers’ vision of who their neighbors were. Like that expert in the Law, I might ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Perhaps my neighbor is simply the person whose suffering I cannot witness without being moved. Perhaps my neighbor is Harry T. Moore.

I Can’t Look! You’re Gonna Fall!

Afraid of HeightsI have, among other slight psychological disorders, something that I call, Vicarious Acrophobia Syndrome. VAS (which is not included in the the American Psychological Association’s DSM-5, is a very real problem. It means that you have fear of heights for someone else. Just to be clear, I have very real fear of heights for myself. Only in recent years have I gotten to where I can scale a ladder and get onto my own roof, but watching somebody, like this fool sitting on the edge of oblivion in the photo, makes me crazy.

I first recognized my struggle with VAS back at Boy Scout camp a number of years back. As an adult, I had been enlisted to help out with an evening’s adventure, guiding boys to scramble up a challenging but not terribly dangerous rock formation. I say that it was not terribly dangerous, but the top of the formation was also the top of a 60-foot cliff.

The guys in charge of the outing had me go up the rocks first. “Just keep everyone from going crazy up there,” they told me.

To me, the way that you keep from going crazy at the top of a cliff is to hold onto a tree–or better yet lash yourself to said tree–30 or 40 yards away from the edge. Instead, these boys would walk up to the brink of the cliff and stare down into the void. I thought I would die.

My rational mind knows that a 12-year-old boy can stand on the edge of something–a rug, for example–look down, and not totter over onto the floor. Why shouldn’t he be able to stand on the edge of a cliff? That’s my rational mind, but my VAS-afflicted, emotional mind was going crazy.

Why am I thinking about this today? That’s probably fodder for another entry, should I ever get around to it, but thinking about my lifelong struggles with VAS leave me wondering about a struggle I don’t have.

Every day, I see people who are standing on the brink of an eternity in hell just as surely as those Boy Scouts were standing on the brink of the cliff. And while those Boy Scouts were not about to suddenly plunge to their deaths, these unsaved people will someday face death and plunge into that doom unless something brings them to Christ.

Why do I, the VAS-obsessed guy, not have a similar dread of their very real fate?  Why is a highly-unlikely physical risk so much more frightening to me than a completely-certain spiritual risk? I wish I could answer that. More importantly, I wish I could generate the sort of empathy for those standing on the brink of hell that I have for those standing on the brink of a cliff.