The worst of times and the best of times (so to speak) came two weeks apart in Atlanta, in a rare back-to-back visit of “winter events.”
The first resulted in thousands of commuters being caught in traffic gridlock for up to 20 hours while students were stranded in schools and on school buses for much of the night.
The winter weather wasn’t a surprise, as forecasters had predicted the arrival of the threatening conditions with some precision.
The news had carried the typical warnings, but officials seemed cautious about overreacting and so the day began without much alarm.
By the time it became apparent that the warnings were serious and everyone left for home, the flood of traffic was more than the roads could handle and the frozen precipitation made every road a parking lot.
The angry, frustrated responses were predictable and understandable.
Commuters were stranded for hours in subfreezing temperature, children were separated from their parents, and emergency personnel were unable to get to those in need. The stories were horrific.
This chaos was followed by days of clamor for accountability, with everyone blaming someone else and officials at whose desks “the buck stops” issuing apologies. It was a clear picture of dysfunction.
Yet, other stories soon emerged of strangers helping strangers and nearby businesses providing food and shelter.
The chaos was met by people of good will responding to the needs in front of them with the resources they had.
Who was at fault didn’t seem to matter as much as what people could do to help, providing a glimmer of light on a dark night.
Two weeks later, predictions of crippling ice again came. This time, however, the weather would arrive overnight and those whose memories of recent misery were fresh heeded the warnings.
Preparations were extensive and well organized, and the cooperation of a focused commitment to the common good resulted in a smoother and safer response that avoided the prior chaos.
Perhaps this “tale of two cities” provides a parable about the benefits of working together to advance the common good instead of taking a “no big deal” approach to warnings of impending danger.
In how many areas of our lives are there warnings of danger and future difficulty that are met with “no big deal” or “not my problem” responses?
Environmental concerns, economic disparity, prejudice in new and stylish costumes, consumerism, health care, local and global injustice – these are a few areas of life where warnings of future consequences are clearly expressed.
Denying the problem, dismissing those who offer the warnings, and ignoring the consequences can lead to chaotic and damaging results.
Even in the chaos experienced by Atlanta during the first storm, the human spirit found ways to respond in grace and helpful service to those in need.
Maybe that spirit can be the foundation for a larger willingness to listen to the informed voices that speak prophetically on these issues of concern and to commit to the kinds of cooperative effort that serves the common good.
These ice events that revealed “two Atlantas” – one ill-prepared, the other equipped – are hardly a Paris or a London from Charles Dickens’ novel, but they do illustrate the challenge and the opportunity that is always before us.
The choice that they reveal is between what is convenient and consistent with our patterns of comfort and what serves the longer term good of the community and world we live in.
The lessons I take away from this parable of two cities are these:
- Even amid dysfunction, there is both an immediate value and a longer-term example of unselfish service in response to those in need.
- A community’s willingness to listen to warnings from knowledgeable sources and to respond with cooperation will find ways to meet the challenges that are healthier and safer for all as well as reflective of the best of what human community can be.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.