I didn’t like Mitch Landrieu when I first met him in law school: he seemed arrogant. Later I realized I had assumed he’d be arrogant because his dad was a famous political figure (mayor of the city and Secretary of HUD in President Carter’s administration). Turned out Mitch wasn’t arrogant so much as he was just sort of brash. I studied him more when we clerked together for a federal trial judge, and I came to better understand his brashness as a strange kind of impatience. Mitch wanted two things as far as I could tell: he wanted to marry Cheryl Quirk and have a slew of kids, and he wanted to be the Mayor of New Orleans. Frankly,I didn’t understand the desire to enter politics, and I thought the whole quest to ‘be an honorable public servant’ was hokey PR stuff. But Mitch believed it and I could tell it was a sincere belief.
One day during our clerkship Mitch told me that he was planning to go to a place called Medjugorje. This was sometime around 1986. I asked him why on earth he would use up a week of precious vacation time to go to Yugoslavia. "Why don’t you go back to Cozumel and do some more scuba diving?" I asked.
He explained to me that miracles were happening in a small village after some teenage kids had been visited by the Virgin Mary. I was concerned, and –of course– completely skeptical. When Mitch returned from his trip he was somehow slightly different: he was still energetic but he seemed less brash, more focused. I wanted to write it off as smugness, but it wasn’t that. It was something more; he seemed to be on some kind of quiet mission. I wondered what it was.
Naturally I asked him about the miracles. He said he believed that miracles had happened there. When I pressed him he gave me a few examples, but they were unsatisfactory. I felt deprived.
Flash forward twenty years: Katrina slammed New Orleans, bringing chaos and havoc. When the storm blew out the power early Monday morning I was awake and quite agitated. With the power out there was nothing to do but sit in the darkness and be afraid. Something prompted me to lay down and meditate. While raging demon sounds came from every direction, I carefully controlled my breathing and achieved a steady, peaceful rhythm. I kept meditating until the winds died down several hours later. I achieved a strange sense of peace, a powerful awareness unlike anything I’d experienced before. Meanwhile, the area all around me was in complete ruin.
I found out the levees broke and so I left, driving out of the city on highway I-10 and passing a large electric roadsign that flashed in bright orange: "New Orleans Closed." In the days and weeks after I fled, I went from place to place: Jennings, Dallas, Kansas City, Houston and then Baton Rouge. Everywhere I went I encountered people who asked me, with grave concern, how they could help. I smiled and told them that I was fine, and I was. Every one of those encounters made me feel better, more postive.
Something powerful had happened to me. Katrina and my meditations were a perfect wave that I somehow rode to a new kind of awareness. I realized that I had wasted so much time trying to change things that I had no control over and I hadn’t focused on what I could control. The only thing that I could reliably control was my attitude —that is, the way that I approached the world. I was aware that I was surrounded by an epic tragedy, but it didn’t seem worth dwelling on.
I focused instead on the awesome sacrifices made by people helping others that they had never known before. Everywhere I looked I saw people being completely open with one another. I could see it and I could feel it. More importantly, I could influence it –in a ridiculously simple way: if I was upbeat and helpful then people, even those who were lost in some terrible concern, reacted positively. I sensed something really miraculous near me and I was getting closer to it. But that was months ago.
Lately, I’ve begun to have doubts. I’ve often lost my patience and had trouble maintaining the right attitude. What happened was I started to focus on the tragedy, and not the miracle. It’s important to understand the subtle (as opposed to obvious) differences between tragedies and miracles. Tragedies, especially while they are unfolding, are easy to capture on film and that’s one thing that makes them easier to focus on (which is not helpful).
I went to the Hilton Hotel last night, along with a whole bunch of other people, hoping to be at a victory party for Mitch Landrieu but it didn’t turn out that way. As you know by now, Mitch didn’t win the election and many people were very disappointed. Mitch was not one of them. His concession speech probably sounded to many people who watched it on TV like a simple "let’s all hang together speech." It was a political speech and it was not delivered with any sense of disappointment, but I’m sure that didn’t come across on TV. After the speech I had a chance to talk to Mitch and I was able to perceive something very clearly, which I should have seen twenty years ago. Mitch believes in miracles and he knows that they unfold in strange ways, not necessarily the ways that we want or expect them to unfold.
Whether Mitch Landrieu is the mayor is not as important as our willingness to believe in miracles. A miracle doesn’t depend on an election. Miracles happen when people consciously will them to happen. Mitch reminded me that miracles are out there and they can happen, but we have to have the right attitude.
New Orleans deserves a miracle, and it’s still possible that we’ll get it. But we have to work together and focus on the postive. Just like Mitch.