In Louisiana, many of us respect the tradition of assigning human names to big storms. Calling an ugly weather event Katrina, Rita or Gustav gives it a useful if illusory sense of scale, designating a villain we might hope to meet on equal terms.
But in the final leg of a catastrophic hurricane season this year, weary Gulf Coast residents have been denied even this small consolation. There have been so many major storms in 2020 that forecasters depleted their official list of names. Instead, officials are tagging late-season storms with letters of the Greek alphabet.
That seems to underline a larger reality about this troubled year. Whether it’s COVID-19, a sucker-punched economy, racial unrest or a sometimes surreal presidential campaign, all of us seem to have run out of language to properly describe our dilemma. Words truly fail us.
Hurricane Delta, which ravaged southwest Louisiana just weeks after the area was pummeled by Hurricane Laura, would have been just as destructive whatever it was called. Slugging the hurricane “Delta,” part of an alphabet from the origins of Western civilization, did at least convey a sense of gravitas about its wide path of destruction. The ancient Greeks, after all, thought a lot about tragedy and how we might rebound from it.
It’s why U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, confronted by another sad and broken time in the 1960s, turned to Edith Hamilton’s “The Greek Way” to help fathom his suffering after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated.
Hamilton, a popular scholar, had published “The Greek Way” in 1930 to help general readers grasp what they might learn from ancient Greeks about navigating life’s struggles. It reached a wide audience of Americans dealing with the Great Depression.
I couldn’t sleep the night that the outer edge of Hurricane Delta rattled my house. While wind shook the trees and our lights sputtered, I fetched my old copy of “The Greek Way” from the living room shelf and tried to distract myself while the storm passed.
One lesson that Hamilton took from the Greeks is the value of sustained reflection, especially in times of crisis. “We have many silent sanctuaries,” she told readers, “in which we can find a breathing space to free ourselves from the personal, to rise above our harassed, perplexed minds and catch sight of values that are stable, which no selfish and timorous preoccupations can make waver, because they are the hard-won and permanent possession of humanity.”
Hamilton, who died in 1963 at 96, offered those words in the 1942 edition of her book, which spoke to readers worried by World War II.
Delta’s gone now, but in other ways this autumn, the country still seems caught in a storm. In this exhausting and exhaustively discussed year, I’m trying to keep Hamilton’s wisdom in mind.
When words fail us in trying times, maybe it’s best to be quiet for awhile — and think.