The Reverend Billy Graham, A Tale of Two Stories

A Tale of Two Stories

The Reverend Billy Graham died while I was writing the previous essay.  He had an enormous impact on the 20th century and on one life in particular, Louis Zamperini.[note]Zamperini’s story has been well told by Laura Hillenbrand in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.[/note]  Louis was a wild child in his youth, later a superb athlete, and a long-distance runner.  He rejoined the Army Air Corps during World War II and became a bombardier.  His plane crashed due to a mechanical malfunction and he survived 47 days on a raft in the Pacific Ocean.  He was captured by the Japanese and survived 2 years torture in their prisoner of war camps.  After the war he had nightmares about his captors.  He had daydreams of killing his chief tormentor and drank to forget, to lose those terrible thoughts.  His life was a mess. Today he would have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and hopefully treated for it.  Instead he medicated himself with alcohol.  In 1949 he attended a rally by Billy Graham and became a born-again Christian.  His nightmares ceased, he stopped drinking, and he committed his life to helping others, particularly youth.  He forgave his captors and torturers.

My brother-in-law, Jerry, died a coupla months before Billy Graham.  Their two lives, while vastly different, had something interesting in common.  Jerry’s life and Louis Zamperini’s also had something in common. Jerry’s life was another story of war, of post-traumatic stress disorder, of a shattered life.  He served his year in Viet Nam as a grunt and returned home with PTSD and a raging heroin addiction.  In five years he cleaned up with the help of Narcotics Anonymous.  He became active in NA and served in many capacities.

Jerry died from liver cancer.  As he lay dying, NA members crowded the hospital corridors and his room crying.  He had redeemed many lives by caring for them, by driving them to meetings, by listening to them at 3 AM as they crashed once again from using.  They testified to that care at the hospital and at his memorial service.  At his service these addicts, these so very human people with terrible problems,[note]Those of us who are not drug addicts cannot begin to understand the mental and physical tortures they have endured.[/note] spoke of Jerry with affection, admiration, and respect.  He was instrumental in redeeming their lives.

He was down in trenches with the suffering addict day in and day out.  Jerry listening, Jerry talking, Jerry caring.  His story, his message, was that they could clean up, that they had to clean up.  It would be hard but it could be done.  “I will be with you,” he said, “I did it, you can do it.”  His life was his story.  He told them it could be their story.  He was their Higher Power and the lives he saved are incontrovertible evidence of the power of his life, his story.  Jerry cared, a very personal carinance.

Billy Graham hobnobbed with presidents, the wealthy, and the powerful.  Jerry hobnobbed with drug addicts.  Billy left an estate worth millions.  Jerry left a mortgaged condominium and a car.  Billy was mourned by millions.  Jerry was mourned by hundreds.  Billy was memorialized by thousands of words spoken and written.  Jerry slipped out sight barely noticed, the testimonials to his care vanishing into the air but remaining in the memory of those he saved.  Billy’s and Jerry’s personal lives were very different yet their legacy was the same – changed lives.

Telling Stories About Stories

I closed my previous essay with “and they (stories) do so much more” thinking of Billy, Louie and Jerry and I have continued to think of them.  Conversions of various types such as religious, political, emotional, academic, and even physiological (recovery from drug addiction) mediated by words are powerful life changing events.  They are larger than my essays so I will pick strands out of Louie’s story and with them tell my story:  Louie, on the raft in the Pacific Ocean prayed.  He prayed with the fervency of a man dying of thirst and surrounded by water that he could not drink.  He prayed with a gnawing hunger and there was no food.  He prayed to a God that he scarcely knew, only knowing that there was such a God that could help.

As I wrote that description of Louie praying, I thought of those stories of animals asking for help from a higher power that I told in The Squirrel, Duck and Goose Stories.  I thought of Bill praying to find his keys in The Key Story.  I thought of the maxim “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  I thought of people enduring artillery or aerial bombardment and crying out for Mother.  I thought of chimpanzees begging for food with an outstretched hand.  That has become my metaphor for these stories: the outstretched hand, the beggar seeking to move from outside the aura of carinance to the inside, to be cared for when in need.  That is an operational definition of a social animal.

The squirrel, the duck and the goose needed help and they found it in a human being with a power vastly beyond their own.  Bill needed help finding his keys and prayed fervently as he walked back down the beach.   Louie needed help on the raft and he needed help in Los Angeles.  He found it in a higher power, an invisible and ultimately powerful God to whom he prayed.

Out of those stories I contrived the idea that higher powers were incipient in neural systems:

I have written several times that the gods themselves are the most human of human inventions.  But the squirrel, duck and goose stories suggest that the gods may be incipient in animal minds.  We created our godly stories out of what other animals had already perceived – that some other animals are powerful beyond their comprehension.  This must be particularly true for prey animals for their predators have the power to take their lives.  Are their predators like gods to their thoughtful prey?

The idea that the gods themselves are a product of our animal heritage is brand new fresh on the page in this essay.  It also surprised me and sent my thoughts spinning off into new directions.  Maybe in some sense we did not invent the gods, they were there all the time.  We simply did what we do consistently: recast our animal heritage into stories comprised of words.

By seeking a natural explanation or understanding of these events, I do not denigrate either Billy or Louie, I do not desecrate the power of that moment when Louie dedicated his life to the service of his God.  That was a real event – I seek to understand it.  My justification for this search is that Jerry was not born again, he was not a Christian.  But he changed lives. Then there are the stories told at Jerry’s memorial service by recovered addicts.  One spoke of being born again, several of a Higher Power, and one or two were explicit about not needing a higher power but needed Jerry with them during withdrawal.  There was no consistent claim that recovery and rehabilitation required the intermediation of God or some undefined Higher Power.  The consistent claim was that Jerry was their immediate higher power conveying carinance by being there and talking, telling them that his story of recovery could be their story: listen and do as I say.

I have pulled one strand of Louie’s story out and spun it into my own story.  Let me pull another strand from his story to weave into the pattern:  Days later he was still dying, slowly, thirsty and hungry.  The sun was torture by day, drying him out.  The dark of night was torture as the cold drained the warmth of his body.  His body was failing.  That night the only warmth was in his mind, as benevolence, gratitude and peace flooded into it.  He could cease the struggle to live, he could permit himself to die.

Louie had a near-death experience, which in some minds, but not all, is transcendental, a perception of serenity, carinance, compassion and benevolence.

Billy brought Louie back to his near-death experience.  Louie was dying again in Los Angeles, in a tent, reliving his near-death experience on the raft, reliving the attempts of the brutal Japanese torturers to inflict maximum pain but not quite kill him.  Louie was dying with the knowledge that he had become a raging cauldron of hatred determined to go to Japan and kill ‘the Bird’, his chief torturer – an act that would condemn him to Hell, for God does not countenance deliberate murder.  Louie was appalled by what he had become.

Billy also brought back that memory of benevolence, of compassion.  What story did Billy tell to Louie that brought back those memories and enabled them to supplant those terrible memories of being starved, hit, kicked, and whipped?  It was the story of God’s care, a Cosmic Carinance, but it came at a price.  Billy pictured God as a kind of cosmic tape recorder with a memory of everything Louie had thought and done.  His thoughts and acts would be the measure upon which heaven or hell would depend.  He was offered love, carinance, benevolence and compassion on one hand and on the other hand was eternal punishment.  Eternal life was conditioned upon belief in the particular story of a God dead on a cross.  They were inextricably bound together.

And in a moment it all came together, he could receive help, he could have forgiveness for desiring to murder the Bird, he could have gratitude and compassion, he could be the man he desired to be.  He only needed to go forward and confess his belief.  He began walking.  Death had no more power over him for he had triumphed over evil.  He believed.  He lived.

Vanessa Woods, in her book Bonobo Handshakes, tells the story of a bonobo infant who had been rescued when her mother was killed for ‘bush meat.’  She was in terrible shape, dehydrated and starved, near death.  Everything possible was done for her, special drink and food, and constant attention.  She would not drink, she would not eat.  She was expected to die.  One night, Vanessa went to bed, devastated knowing that she would find her dead in the morning.  She was wrong.  The next morning the infant was drinking and eating, determined to live.  Her will to survive was there all along.  She lived.

These conversion events reconfigure the brain’s survival rules and behavioral control:  Louie returned home a born-again Christian, a new man.  He had lost the desire for revenge and no longer was tortured by the desire to kill “the Bird.”  He lost the need to drink to drown the memories and the murderous desire.

What happens in these intense moments, when the very structure of the brain changes?  When one’s worldview turns upside down, and what was once true is now false, and falsehood is replaced with truth?  When the very core of being dies and a new being takes its place?  When one is born again?  These are real events in a mind and being obligate story-tellers, we create stories about them, to explain them, and to celebrate them:  Louie’s brain had been rewired.

I well remember where I encountered that sentence for it has become my paradigm for understanding conversions.  I was walking along returning home from the library with a book in hand when I read it and in an instant my brain was rewired. There was a before and after.  Before, my mind now appears to be more confused.  After, my mind has a new clarity.  It was, and still is, a powerful sentence – it conveys so much understanding as it organizes many observations and experiences into one concept, a new pattern, a new gestalt.

But just what does that sentence mean?  I’m not a neuroscientist and have no idea of the complex of thought that the author transliterated into that sentence.  I cannot replicate his thought process.  But somehow that sentence was very real to me even though it is nothing more than a metaphor.  I now had a new organizing principle that gathered other ideas and concepts around it and showed new connections between them.  This was itself a conversion experience, not a very significant nor emotional one, but I had a new story that conveyed connections, understanding and explanation, even though in reality it did nothing of the sort.  That sentence became my story even though I cannot explain it.  While it has meaning to me, it has little or no meaning of itself.  To its author it was a portmanteau– that is, in one sentence it encapsulated his corpus of thought – but it is only a metaphor to me.  Yet it has an extraordinary power in my brain: the power of stories.  They are only vibrations in the air or ink on paper but they possess a miraculous power: the power to rewire brains.

Paying my Respects

I have paid my respects to Jerry.  I regret that I did it posthumously.  I was never able to ‘tune him in’ and two people at his service commented that he lived in a different mental world.  I think that limited the scope of his life, and his ability to be and do more than he did.  To avoid that world, I paid him short shrift.  I had no knowledge of his addiction and recovery until about 3 months before his death and no knowledge of his service to fellow addicts via Narcotics Anonymous until his memorial.  Jerry, I did you wrong for I never acknowledged your value and your service, and never gave you the respect that you would have had from me if I had only known.