In search of pearls

We are at the beginning of a new academic year and even with COVID protocols and their restrictions in place for our health and safety, there is a sense of hope in the Duke blue air. There’s a deep sense of gratitude from students whom I’ve encountered for being in-person, masked and all. 

While there is hope, there is also much anxiety due to the pandemic and more. All I need to say is two words: Afghanistan and Haiti. Beyond that there are Gulf Coast hurricanes, floods in the western part of this state, fires in California, gun violence in schools and the list goes on and on. For many, it feels, to channel Charles Dickens, like “the worst of times.” 

Spending time this summer by the ocean I was reminded of how these two things fit together—the struggles and the hope. It was a lesson from oysters.

Some oysters produce pearls but even the oysters that can produce pearls do not always do so. The oysters that form pearls do so because they’re a little uncomfortable. As Duke biology professor Steve Nowicki said in a 2017 Duke undergraduate convocation address, “An oyster forms a pearl when a grain of sand becomes lodged inside its shell. That grain of sand irritates the oyster; it makes the oyster just a little uncomfortable… the oyster has no way to get rid of the sand, so what it does instead is to cover that grain of sand with layer upon layer of a remarkable substance called 'nacre,' and this nacre forms a smooth capsule around the sand grain, preventing it from further irritating the oyster. It's this smooth capsule made of layer upon layer of nacre that we call a pearl.” What’s illuminating is that something beautiful, like a pearl, can emerge from discomfort and struggle. In this case, grace comes through a lodged grain of sand. A pearl emerges through a problem. Hope comes out of hard times, not despite them.

In Flannery O'Connor's short story "Revelation," the main character, Ruby Turpin, is known as a not-so-nice bigot. She loves the hierarchies that she’s created for race and class and believes they’re admirable. She sees this as a great virtue. One day, while sitting in the waiting room of her doctor's office, expressing gratitude that she was not this race nor that class, Ruby is assaulted by a young girl who hits her smack in the middle of her forehead with a book entitled Human Development, and then that same girl calls her "a warthog from hell." Ruby sees this attack not only as a crazy act of a stressed-out teenager, but she also sees this incident as a message sent to her by God.  

When Ruby arrives home from the doctor's office with a bruise on her forehead, she heads out to her shed, picks up a hose, and begins washing down her pigs, forcefully, with water. She’s angry at God because she believes that God has called her ‘a warthog from hell’ even though she views herself as an upstanding citizen. 

At the end of this story, Ruby has a vision, a revelation, as she stands outside by her pigs. She sees a ladder on which people are ascending to heaven, walking together in the groups that she had created in her mind based on her ideal hierarchical categories of race and class. She and those like her are bringing up the rear of the procession; they are the "last," following all of those whom they have despised for so long. O'Connor writes, "They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away." 

Though this situation may have been difficult for Ruby, it was eye-opening—the name of the girl who throws the book at her in the doctor's office is "Grace." The tough experience was in the end a portal for grace. Maybe not quite a pearl but definitely a new possibility and opportunity for living in a new way was presented to her. Something new was birthed out of this difficult situation for Ruby.

Even if you think of this past summer’s Olympics, the same was true. One reporter noted the grace or ‘pearls’ present: “a surfer jumping in to translate for the rival who’d just beaten him. High-jumping friends agreeing to share a gold medal rather than move to a tiebreaker. Two runners falling in a tangle of legs, then helping each other to the finish line.” 

Through uncomfortable or tough situations, there can be something good or beautiful or enlightening that emerges. Pearls are everywhere. The rock group U2 put it this way: 


She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings

Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace finds beauty
In everything

Grace finds goodness in everything

Let’s be careful this year not to center all of our attention on what hurts, the friction or on what stings. Don’t forget to look for pearls. They’re being birthed all around us through oysters and other people.

Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is the Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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