Denham Springs, Louisiana is a sleepy bedroom community of broad lawns and big grills east of Baton Rouge. It is the kind of place you build a home and raise a family and wear purple and gold a lot.
It is, on an average Saturday, not all that friendly to maroon. But the week before last was not an average Saturday. And a sleepy bedroom community becomes something else entirely when a river runs through it.
To be specific, a 3-foot-deep river ran through the house of one of the most dedicated husbands and fathers I know. I had seen him earlier that week at a conference in New York, and we laughed about the things that normally preoccupy us—our research project, our families and our students. He is a gentle giant, personally unassuming and always others-centered.
I found that to be true in the worst of circumstances during a short visit last week to Louisiana. I arrived to lawns littered with the wet remains of lifetimes, gone for good in a matter of hours. I heard stories of narrow escapes, of rescuing his aging father first before the remaining family members went through a harrowing hours-long ordeal, including wading out in chest-deep water with dogs on their shoulders. Of homes and vehicles uniformly destroyed without warning in areas that never flood, like my friend’s house. And all he could think about was how I could be most comfortable.
I watched his children do the work that children should never do, tearing down and destroying all that the family had built up through the years in an effort to rescue what was salvageable. They cut drywall out 3½ feet high throughout the house, and mercilessly ripped out door molding and the doors themselves, swollen by the onslaught. Out came wet insulation, and soggy slippers, and anything that was not on a high shelf or counter. The floor was smeared, van Gogh-like, with the tracked remains of the crumbled sheetrock. His daughter peeled apart letters from her grandmother, page by page, draping them on ruined stools in hopes that a convection oven drying would be sufficient to sustain them for posterity. Her older brother, mindful of their significance, moved them gently aside to a shelf when it became necessary to use the stools. A portrait of the children hung above the fireplace, a reminder that everything important still remained.
Tiger values, I found, aren’t that different from Aggie values. Loyalty and selfless service manifested themselves everywhere. Every meal was provided by the neighborhood of relatives who were less affected by the deluge. I watched various family members assume leadership for the different jobs that had to get done. Any request from a neighbor was fulfilled instantaneously. As with many disasters, this one served to unify disparate people, and to remind those who were already close why they loved each other so much.
My brief trip to Baton Rouge also provided a portrait for me of what I have seen in the lives of those who have made serious ethical missteps. I have had the privilege of knowing those who have reconstructed their lives after disastrous decisions. I have also known those who have crashed and burned. What allows people to walk through the biggest mistakes of their lives and still find something worth rebuilding?
First, it takes a willingness to embrace a certain amount of pain, a ruthlessness that will recognize truth and not live in denial. You cannot fix a floor by pretending that there is no seepage underneath; it must be ripped out for the room to be restored. A restored life requires facing the truth, recognizing the damage that has been done and taking responsibility.
The second requirement of rebuilding is perseverance. If you have never been through a disaster, it is common to think that the toughest day is the next day, when life has been turned upside down. But it turns out that day six, and 12, and 20 can be tougher, when it seems like the fixing will never get done. A rebuilt life requires moving forward even through rejection and constant reminders of past failures. It also requires living with the knowledge that it may never actually be the same again.
But perhaps the most important need for those rebuilding is friends. When we make the big mistake, we need those who will come alongside us to help us tear down and rebuild. We need those who will feed us and make sure we stay hydrated, physically and emotionally. We need those who are in it for the long haul—not because of what we have done, or what we have built, but because of who we are.
My friend has all three of these, in his character and in his surroundings, and I am confident that he will be OK. But I know those who don’t, who are one big rain or one bad decision from watching it all come crashing down. And, as another school year begins, I am about to meet some more.
That’s why I’m here.