The Boy Who Harnessed …
David R. Weiss – May 16, 2023
Last night our housemate, Deandre, invited us to join him in watching The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019). It’s a powerful, inspirational movie. Margaret and I had read the book together on a long road trip, maybe a decade ago, so we knew the story, but it was still quite moving to see it brought to life in film.
It’s a true story, set in Malawi, in southeast Africa, in 2000-2001. William Kamkwamba is a teenager in a small rural village who has a knack for tinkering. He fixes the small radios used by the subsistence farmers in the village (including his father) to track weather and politics, the twin forces that determine their fate. William is intuitively bright and self-taught; he scavenges most of his repair supplies—wire, old batteries, and more—from the nearby garbage dump.
But William’s tinkering is set against a backdrop of desperation in the village. Unpredictable weather patterns, ranging from drought to downpour. Corrupt government pressure to sell off the trees that protect the fields against flooding in order to feed families in the short term. Followed by inadequate humanitarian aid during the ensuing famine. The villagers are under intense economic and social stress. At times they betray both tradition and one another, though less from malice than from the fracturing pressure mounting on all sides.
The fracture lines run right into William’s family as well. His mother has a fierce determination that the children be educated, and his father has worked hard to send both of their children to school. A man of deep integrity but lacking in great vision, as the famine settles in, he can no longer justify William’s school fees … or his absence in the fields. (Although by now the ground is so parched that doubling their labor merely doubles the futility of their efforts.)
Meanwhile, William, who had been given informal access to the school library after being removed from class for unpaid fees, has deepened his understanding of how electricity works—and what it can do. In the depths of his family’s—his entire village’s—desperation, he begins to imagine the difference it would make if he could use electricity to “bring rain” from beneath the ground giving them a real measure of security in their harvest.
But William’s daring vision is still complicated by family dynamics. His father cannot fathom how the wind, which only whips the dust about, as far as he can tell, can be such a force for good as William describes. It is entirely beyond the world his father knows. Nevertheless, somehow, at the age of 14 and using mostly scraps from the nearby dump, William indeed “harnesses the wind”—designing and then building a wind turbine that charges a discarded car battery that drives a salvaged pump that brings “rain” up from the ground to irrigate the farmland.
It is a miracle, but one wrought not by suspending the laws of nature but by understanding them and then imagining how to harness them in new ways for the good of his community. The miracle is what happens at the intersection of his mother’s belief in education, William’s own persistent imagination, his father’s faltering-but-final trust, and his community’s deep need. Right there.
Of course, I encounter almost everything these days with ecological collapse on my mind. (Sorry not sorry. I have a job to do.) So, as I watched William persist vis-a-vis the skepticism of family and friends who could not recognize the promise of his vision—until he brought it to pass, it occurred to me, that I am determined to be “the boy who harnessed grief.”
For years now, I’ve been convinced that the single most “promising” response to the climate crisis is the honesty and depth of our grieving for the world’s pain … at our hands. And it’s been true, both for our culture in general, but also as the most typical reaction to my specific writing and speaking, that we want as little to do with grieving as possible. We are perhaps willing to acknowledge the damage we’ve done to this “pale blue dot” … and grieve for that ever so briefly, if only we-can-swiftly-and-definitively-turn our-attention-and-energy-to-fixing-it.
But what if the only “fix” possible is to sit with the world’s pain? For a long—long!—time.
Yes, we will need to do things besides grieve. BUT STOP RIGHT THERE! You don’t get to do any of those other things except as you are steeped in grief. Grief—pure and simple, strong and steady—is the wind we must harness to do the rest of what must done. Nothing will guide or sustain the rest of what we do except grief. But more than merely a means to our doing, grief must also become an end of our being, our common calling as humans.
This is NOT about wallowing in sadness or shame or guilt. We may well have sadness, shame, and guilt to process, but this grief is about being present to the world. Having christened ourselves homo sapiens (“the wise human”), our only course forward now is to rechristen ourselves homo compatiens (“the suffering-with human”). Every other pathway leads ineluctably toward (literally, “unable to squirm free from”) further alienation, deeper ecological damage, and more catastrophic collapse.
But choosing to feel the world’s pain, to allow grief to drive the turbines of our soul, is to invite Earth and all her company of saints to step out of the It-ness to which we have consigned them for far too long … and into the Thou-ness that has always been theirs, citizen-companions alongside us in the web of life. When we endeavor to acknowledge deep in our hearts, when we dare to seek to suffer with the pain that is theirs, we experience an apocalypse—a revelation—of sorts. We can.
That is, despite all the tales we’ve told ourselves about being separate from, better than, distinctly different and otherwise-destined than the Earthly company round about us, we are, in fact, in beloved truth: KIN. And that irrevocable kinship remains, latent in most of us, but waiting to rise in our grief. At this point in human history, on the cusp of ecological collapse, only our kinship with all that is has the capacity to re-root us in the unconditional energy of life and love. And in this perilous moment, that kinship can only be accessed … welcomed … received—on terms of grief.
Because right now, alongside its awe-inspiring, lingering-languishing beauty, the world as Thou can only be known intimately by knowing its wounds. And nothing less than intimate knowing—whole-hearted suffering-with, grief that runs deep into our bones—can guide the rest of what we must seek to do and, perhaps more importantly, the mystery of who we must become.
I understand, my harping on grief seems obsessive. But the impatience you feel to move on is the measure of your reluctance (unwillingness? fear?) to allow the depth of the world’s pain into your heart. Once it enters, … you … will … slow … down. Because the thrum of such profound and widespread grief stretches out time until each heartbeat is brimful of the world’s pain. Then—like lightning splintering across the sky—those turbines, long stilled in your soul, will start to move. And you will realize that all this time, you have only guessed (and poorly so) at life. At last, re-joined to the whole web of life—now weeping, raging, loving, laughing—grief will bring you home.
I am determined to be the boy who harnessed grief. For the good of my community. (That’s you!) It’s gonna take a miracle, so wish me luck. And consider where you fit in the intersection. I’ll meet you. Right there.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.