Miracle Myth Memes and the Propagation of Hope in Wen Chuan

The recent earthquake in Wen Chuan, China gives us a moment to reflect on our mortality in sorrow, express a renewed appreciation for being alive, and an opportunity to learn how we grieve and how we always try to look for stories of hope in the propagation of news from a disaster site.

I call those propagated stories of incredible survival — “Miracle Myth Memes” — and they are a fascinating cultural salve against the unthinkable.


The reality of the Wen Chuan missing, lost, and dead is too ugly and too hard to bear in private and cannot be hidden in public.

It is natural to seek meaning in, and reasons for, any natural disaster
– but the stories of those that survived are always given the most
attention — even if those stories are unverifiable or unbelievable — as we try to shield our own fragility in the robust signs of
life in those that survived against the odds.

The stories of survival coming out of Wen Chuan are shocking:  A young ballet dancer, with both legs pinned beneath a concrete wall, begs her rescuers for death instead of the amputation of both legs at mid-thigh.  Her request is denied as chainsaws are used to leave her legs behind.

Another story out of Wen Chuan concerns a grandmother who, sensing the earthquake shaking beneath her slippered feet, picked up her sleeping, infant, grandson from his crib and “tossed him out the window” to the safety of the front yard before the roof collapsed — instantly killing the grandmother.   Her grandson was later found by rescuers in a pile of leaves, alive and unhurt.

With the lack of heavy machinery in Wen Chuan, family members were forced to use farm tools to save their beloveds:  Scythes became catlings; shards of broken pottery jugs were surgeon’s knives; nails found new use as surgical staples.  Bones were broken, muscle was torn, and skin was knitted together in order to salvage the body from the trapped limb.

I remember stories in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that spread across New York City like electrical pulses of hope in an expanding sea of grief around an island of disbelief:  A man used an industrial garbage bag to parachute to safety from the 93rd floor of Tower 2; a worker, doing air conditioning maintenance on the roof of Tower 1 “surfed” down the rubble to the safety of the street as the tower collapsed below his feet; bike messengers furiously cycled uptown yelling at people to start lining up at hospitals to donate blood.

Unfortunately, none of those 9/11 stories of hope against grief were true — but many of those stories still exist today as Miracle Myth Memes of survival against the incredible. For a moment — in the midst of death and decay — there was hope for the living. 

Miracle Myth Memes require an urgent, immediate, context and at least a shred of truth in order to be initially believed and then propagated. 

As we once again, turn a wet eye to the Wen Chuan disaster, there is one particular story taking on a Miracle Myth Meme status of its own in email, on the internet, and in blogs as the masses “celebrate” the miracle in situ.

Remember, the driving idea with Miracle Myth Memes is to get them re-told and passed along to strangers to keep the story transformational and alive.

The Wen Chuan story — word for word and all and always “translated from the original Chinese” — is told this way:

When rescuers found her, she was already dead, crushed by the collapsed house. Through gaps in the rubbles, they could see her posture.

Kneeling on both knees, her entire upper body bent forward, held up by her two hands pressed against the ground, as if performing the ceremonial bow in an ancient ritual.
Except, her body had been compressed out of shape and looked somewhat eerie.

A rescuer extended his hand through a gap and confirmed her death.
He called out to her, and tapped on the bricks with his shaft, but received no response.

As the team walked toward next building, the squad leader suddenly turned back, yelling as he ran, “Come quick!” He came to her remain, labored to maneuver his hand under her body, searching.

He called out following some rummaging, “There’s someone, a child, still alive.”

With some effort, rescuers carefully removed the debris burying her, found her child lying beneath her, bundled in a little red blanket decorated with yellow flower prints. He was about 3-4 months old.

Shielded by his mother’s body, he was totally unharmed, sleeping peacefully as he was brought out. His soundly asleep face warmed the hearts of all rescuers on the scene.

As the rescue team’s doctor unbundled the blanket to examine the baby, he discovered a mobile phone tucked into the blanket. He subconsciously looked at the display, found there was a SMS message.

“My Dear Baby, If you were to stay alive, you must remember that I love you.”
No stranger to the pain and sorrow brought by death, the doctor nonetheless wept at this moment. The cell phone was passed around, every person who read the message wept.

 
The following picture is always attached to the story:

Does the Wen Chuan “SMS Survival Baby” strike you as a true story — or does it prickle your skin more as a likely “Miracle Myth Meme” that we naturally expect to be created in the midst of unfathomable suffering to give the rest of us future solace in the light of a deadly past?

Does the truth of the story matter?

Or is the impression of hope enough in the salvation of one against the dead?

What “Miracle Myth Memes” can you share from your past?

Here are the requirements for verifying if a Miracle Myth Meme exists or not:

  1. Is the story based on a well-known, international, tragedy?
  2. Is there a “miracle” survival involved?
  3. Have you heard, seen, or read about the story in at least three of the following idea streams:  Website, blog, email, radio, newspaper, television, word-of-mouth?
  4. There is no way to directly verify all the facts of the story.
  5. At least one thing in the story strikes you as being unbelievable.

Please remember we are using the Richard Dawkins definition of a “meme” — concerning how knowledge and learning are transferred from one person to another — and not the insidious junk you see filling blogs.

10 comments

  • Good questions. I’m highly skeptical about the truth of the story, and I think the truth of the story does matter. But I’m not concerned enough to see to try de-bunking it, my limits of tolerance for bullshit having been stretched of late by Bush, Cheney, and now John “McBush.” (Scott McClellan’s new book, with its allegations that the Iraq war was unnecessary and was sold to the public on the basis of lies, re-kindles my hope that the truth can’t be trampled on endlessly.)

    Aloha ~~~ Ozzie Maland ~~~ San Diego

  • Ozzie –
    I agree with you that the SMS Baby does seem… not entirely true. When I came to the “SMS text message” part, alarms went off in my gut that the entire story was fabricated to try to make a good thing happen out of a bad something.
    Some point to the Bible as a collection of morality tales that sort of mimic my idea of “Miracle Myth Memes” — the truth of them doesn’t really matter, it’s the point of the story that is important.
    William Jennings Bryan said, across his many failed presidential barnstorms: “The truth, when crushed to the ground, shall rise again.” I find great hope in that idea because it is based on a necessary human reality: Lies only live as long as the liars survive to repeat them.
    In 20 years we will look back on the last 8 years as a dark and prehistoric devaluation of everything 1776 was intended to eradicate from the face of the new union.

  • Gordon Davidescu

    I can’t help but thinking about the impracticality of the message. Targeting audience that surely would not be able to read the message for another few years seems illogical – who wouldn’t have written, “Please raise my baby well and tell him that I will always love him?” – that would have sold the story to me, personally.
    I’m off to Portland for the day so if I can’t respond, that is why. :)

  • Gordon –
    That’s a good point. I found the cellphone to be a little too convenient. A little too “Asian Cool” to be fully believable when you consider the context of the story and the region of China.
    These Miracle Myth Memes require a certain amount of filling in like… say… the the mother and baby must have survived in the rubble a bit alive together and the cellphone was used as a light… or something… and then the mother decided to write to her baby in the future… or the baby played with the phone and wrote the miracle message himself… or something… like… that… and the whole… story sort of implodes…
    You’re right that it is much more logical for a dying mother to write a note to the responders who could actually read the message and work on saving her baby. Wouldn’t a mother include her final wishes for her child? Special instructions for future familial care? Or “His name is Bobby and he likes popsicles” or… something… ?

  • Gordon Davidescu

    A name would have definitely been useful and realistic. Otherwise they would just have to call him the Chinese equivalent of John Doe. I wonder what that is. Love is great and all, but people need to know if your baby has a peanut allergy or is deaf.
    Not only that but the “if you were to stay alive” is sort of not necessary. The fact that the baby is getting the message means that the baby is alive. If the baby had not survived, there would be nobody to receive the message. Seems a bit much like sentimental heart string tugging for the sake of itself.

  • David W. Boles

    Right on target, Gordon! I feel sort of dirty for tearing apart the story until I stop and remind myself that the “miracle” was invented by someone for a specific reason: to provoke or wound or test a delivery method for memeingful events.
    What is that story without the “SMS Miracle” part of it? It is still moving? Or does it need that extra push of the “message from the dead” to make it memorable?

  • Donna Tessitore

    That is a beautiful baby in that picture and I wonder what the real story is?
    No, David I can’t think of a miracle myth meme offhand that meets all your criteria.
    Though I did get a chain email recently about an unidentified woman who believed she had been targeted by an elusive serial killer who approached her early one morning at a gas station by holding a twenty dollar bill in his hand and telling her she had dropped it. The woman knowing she had no cash on hand, quickly got into her car whereby the man’s mood changed from helpful to quite angry. She took off in her car and never looked back.
    The only reason I repeat this story is that it could prove helpful to someone, but if by chance you dropped twenty bucks accidentally, then it certainly could create some unnecessary fear. . .

  • David W. Boles

    Great story with a warning, Donna! Love it! Did it really happen, do you think?
    I agree: The image of the saved SMS Baby is a great kicker to the story and puts on just the right amount of frosting to cover any ill gut feelings that might be bothering you…

  • Donna Tessitore

    David–
    The story I received via email was believable to me so I printed it out and passed it along to some of my friends several months ago. When I referred back to the original email which I had saved, the story had some very specific details in it such as the city of occurrence, mention of the Exxon Blimpie gas station in that city, the early AM time among other details.
    But it would appear that this is just an Urban Legend according to snopes.com. And forgive me for getting some of the details wrong. But that’s how I remembered the story.
    But here it is reproduced on the internet almost verbatim to what I received with background information and the conclusion it is not a true story.
    Apparently gas station crime stories are great fodder for the perpetration and perpetuation of the urban myth.
    Here’s the link:
    http://www.snopes.com/crime/warnings/batonrouge.asp

  • David W. Boles

    Love the story, Donna!
    It’s amazing how we learn and how information propagates from one person to another. The Snopes.com site is invaluable in ferreting out the cruft from the cream.

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