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:
- Is the story based on a well-known, international, tragedy?
- Is there a “miracle” survival involved?
- 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?
- There is no way to directly verify all the facts of the story.
- 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.