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Piecemeal Miracle

I went into Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge knowing only a) it was about World War II and b) it had Andrew Garfield. If you want to see it that unspoiled, don’t read this post. The trailer or any review includes the major points I’m giving away below, though.

Hacksaw Ridge is based (solidly, with some stretchers) on the true story of Desmond Doss, an American army medic in the Pacific who refused to wield a weapon and received the Medal of Honor for single-handedly rescuing roughly 75 wounded men at the battle of Okinawa in 1945.

Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist, was not a pacifist. He agreed with the Allies’ goals while holding the apparently contradictory belief that he must not kill. Rather than try to square that circle philosophically, he simply lived it out, walking into fire armed only with bandages, morphine, and rock-solid certainty that this was his personal role in the drama that was gripping the planet.


I say simply and mean it. One of my favorite things about the film is watching Garfield’s wide eyes fill again and again with clarity of purpose, while his character is variously being a goofball, being a pain in his commander’s ass, and being hurt and exhausted. He gets tired, he gets frustrated, he gets everyone he’s ever met telling him he’s wrong, but he never once gets slowed up by doubt. He doesn’t condemn the soldiers around him for blowing up their fellow humans. That’s their thing. He personally is just there to save lives while everyone else is taking them.

With the world so set on tearing itself apart, don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.    – Hacksaw Ridge

As he stumbles again and again into enemy range to pull yet another bloody mass back into life, Garfield’s Doss prays, “Please, Lord, help me get one more. Help me get one more. Help me get one more.”

Who, left standing alone with 75 dying guys crying medic, could find a way to save them? It’s overwhelming. Mass tragedy as far as the eye can see. So Doss doesn’t find a way to save 75 guys. He doesn’t save 75 guys. He saves one guy. Then another guy. Then another. Then another. It’s like he’s too dumb to realize that the situation’s impossible. And thus piecemeal he commits a miracle.

That’s a kind of dumb us smart people could use, in this era when the streets are full of the hungry and your inbox is full of good causes. Few Americans now have Doss’ faith-based certainty; few locate their singular purpose with so much conviction. Everything looks like 75 guys all at once.

All I want to say is I was just thankful the Lord was able to use me, and forget the number. It’s not the number: It’s doing the best you can.   – Desmond Doss, in this book

I’m reminded of a couple of things. The first is the enternally corny and touching and valid story of a kid on a beach:

A man was walking along a deserted beach at sunset. As he walked he could see a young boy in the distance, and as he drew nearer he noticed that the boy kept bending down, picking something up and throwing it into the water. Time and again he kept hurling things into the ocean. As the man approached even closer, he was able to see that the boy was picking up starfish that had been washed up on the beach and, one at a time, he was throwing them back into the water. When the man asked the boy what he was doing, the boy replied, “I am throwing these washed-up starfish back into the ocean, or else they will die through lack of oxygen. “But,” said the man, “you can’t possibly save them all. There are thousands on this beach, and this must be happening on hundreds of beaches along the coast. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy smiled, bent down and picked up another starfish. As he threw it back into the sea, he said, “Made a difference to that one.”

The second comes from another, even more famous big-screen phenom, Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King. Frodo is carrying the weight of the world in the form of a ring. He has the whole damn war on a chain around his neck. His friend and servant Sam has been pleading with him to hand over the ring and let Sam solve the big problem, end all the violence, ceasefire on every front. For reasons of fantasy metaphysics, Frodo can’t give him the ring, even when he collapses. At which point Sam, too small to fix the entire system, finally sees what’s right in front of him: just one guy at a time. “I can’t carry it for you,” he exclaims, “but I can carry you.”

(Note: That’s the movie’s improvement of Tolkien’s original line, but it’s all good.)


Looking for a way to aid a piecemeal miracle this holiday season? Here are a few ideas. The universe gives you permission not to do all of them. Pick one and do it for real.065_ddoc_dont_do_nothing

Share what you have with a homeless person. Pass along a dollar, make up a care package, look at stuff here.

If you’re white and/or bear other outward signs of privilege, accompany your neighbor. Here’s a form for New Yorkers to sign up. Here’s a guide to helping someone who’s being bullied in a public place.

Donate toward someone’s basic income in one of the world’s poorest areas with the rigorously monitored charity GiveDirectly. Read ethics guru Peter Singer on why this kind of philanthropy actually does good.

Sponsor a farmed animal at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary or a sanctuary of your choice. Talk about making a difference to that one! – but it does make a difference.

Write a letter supporting a prisoner of conscience with Amnesty International. (If you’re in the New York City area, do it at this party!) Desmond Doss almost became a prisoner of conscience before the army figured out what to do with a conscientious objector in a rifle unit. Amnesty does the research so you don’t have to: who’s in need, how to serve them, who to contact. Your words have power.

Let’s just put a little bit of the world back together.

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