The Unseen Destruction: A Shawshankian Culture of Victims

I heard recently that at least one poll lists The Shawshank Redemption as the second best movie of all times – behind (of course) The Godfather. I’m not sure whether I agree with that or not, though I will say that I didn’t immediately reject the notion.

I’ve seen some crazy things in Southern Louisiana. Doing insurance claims in Chalmette and the Lower 9th revealed the ridiculously destructive power of water. I’ve seen things that are indescribable – no special effects could do it justice. The cars on top of houses were not nearly as wild as seeing the house on top of a car in the middle of a street.

One of my roles here at Tammany Oaks is to help the volunteers process through what they’ve experienced. Even now, 10 months later, the destruction can be quite overwhelming. One person who was in New Orleans last week on a mission trip said, “Speaking as a follower of Christ, I found the whole thing nauseating and completely preventable. When I say nauseating, I mean it. Many people cry and weep when they see the destruction of the city. I got nauseous and pissed off.”

The truth is, and this is going to sound very strange, the destruction we are physically cleaning up is one of the easier types of disasters to address. Katrina ensured that no one in the Gulf Coast area would be able to deny that they had experienced a hurricane. That does not mean that it is easy to actually get the job done, if for no other reason than the sheer magnitude of destruction. Again, 10 months down the road does not really look like 10 months down the road here. However, people come from all over the country to help people reclaim their lives. There are the hippies who’ve set up the “Hippie Kitchen” in order to feed relief workers and residents. There are countless churches and volunteer groups giving up weekends and taking off work to come down and gut houses, clean parks, and listen to the stories of Katrina…stories which must be told and retold in order for healing to be a possibility. Still, I remind the volunteers that people in their hometowns are often hit with hurricanes which don’t leave such obvious destruction. These hurricanes do not attract national headlines nor do they bring in volunteers, funds or assistance of any kind. They just rot.

One reason it is important to help gut houses, even the ones that are going to be bulldozed, is that we have what is being called “bayou muck”, which as you can imagine is mixture of mud, water, mold and 100% Grade A, decaying nastiness. I’ve heard that we may have even bred a whole new strand of toxic mold here in New Orleans! The destruction is more than just debris, because this wreckage happens to be poisonous. But at least we can see where the wreckage is.

So many people live in homes infested with a bayou muck that is not visible. Anger, alcoholism, greed, divorce, abuse – these things may or may not sweep away all of your earthly possessions overnight. But there is real danger found in the decay. These toxic environments are made even more dangerous because they can often be hidden for months, years or even generations. All the while the inhabitants are being consistently poisoned.

While this is true wherever you may live – Thousand Oaks California, Dallas Texas or Omaha Nebraska – the high levels of “unseen” destruction here along the Gulf Coast are of epic proportions. I’m sure that I am not the first person to point this out, but the events of the last year have created a culture of victims, many of whom have little expectation, hope or intention of reclaiming “control” of their lives.

Red, Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption, referred to this as becoming “institutionalized.” The walls of the Shawshank prison were initially despised, and then familiar and finally depended upon for the stability to survive. According the this theory of life, after years and years of oppression and bondage, a person loses the ability to live free.

I remember learning about something very similar in college. It seems that, as babies, circus elephants are shackled to a stake buried deep in the ground. The young elephant fights against its restraints but eventually realizes that there is no hope and gives up. Later, the full grown elephant is able to be restrained by a simple shackle attached to pretty much any stake – though it could drag a car down the road, it doesn’t even attempt to escape because it is convinced that there is no chance of freedom.

In Exodus we read of a people in a similar situation. Generations of Israelites had known nothing but slavery in Egypt. When delivered into freedom they immediately began longing for their former bondage. The Lord allowed an entire generation to die in the wilderness before the nation entered the Promised Land. Perhaps this was because the Victim Culture was simply too hardwired into their nature for these individuals to ever be able to function as members of a free society.

Fast forward to New Orleans in the year 2006. It seems that there are more and more people convinced that Katrina has destroyed all hope of freedom from bondage and oppression. It seems that many people are resigned to a new way of living. In Dallas we used to complain together that the plumber would tell you that he’d be there between 10 and 4 and he’d show up around 7. Yet here, people will make excuses for the plumber if he says he’ll be there between Monday and Friday and doesn’t show up until September. Don’t get me wrong, patience and understanding are good, but this is something else. It is the crippling belief that nothing good can happen anymore because of Katrina. You can see it in people’s eyes.

And then there are the Andy Dufresne’s of the world. There are people who don’t necessarily say much as they go about rebuilding – but if you talk to them you find out that hope is not something to avoid as dangerous. You find out that they are willing to take a beating or two in order to bring a glimpse of normal to their “co-workers”. You find out that there is, in fact, life after Shawshank.

The Victim Culture is growing like bayou mold, and I fear that it will prove to be much more difficult to get rid of. It has the ability to hide beneath the surface of a cleaned out residence. Accepting the role of victim is often a last ditch attempt at survival, and ironically it can be a death sentence in itself. If you are wondering what needs to be done for New Orleans as we approach the 1 year anniversary, it is this: pray against the Victim Culture, pray that the residents of the Gulf Coast region will not become institutionalized. Pray that hope will not be a word which is either scoffed at as a fairy tale or warned against as a danger.


Posted on July 3, 2006, in hope, institutionalized, New Orleans, shawshank, victim culture. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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