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Shock, Awe and Grace


I've thought about this before.

Suffering, calamity, misfortune, crime, hatred, ignorance – these realities abound in the world and fill the headlines.

When natural disasters occur, news vendors rush to count the dead. I fear that the news of intense events is creating a numbing effect in many. I don’t place blame. This is the way life is. Shock is hard to take, especially when it is often repeated. People look for relief from bad news in order to keep going.  

However, there is another view of shock.

Flannery O'Connor talked about "shock" as an instrument for instruction in her writing. Shock is often the vehicle of grace in O’Connor’s short stories that causes a character to examine her life and to make a change that leads to living a more authentic life. As O'Connor put it, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”


Flannery O'Connor had the sense that biblical parables were meant to shock with the intention of affecting the quality of how the hearers heard the stories.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose


Yet the question remains, what happens when people are numb to shock? Do they stop examining their lives? What happens to life, values, personal growth, caring and love when the shock of tragedy is no longer tragic, but commonplace "ho-hum" events? Do we hum “So it goes” along with Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim character in Slaughterhouse-five?


Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel

In one of Flannery O’Connor’s more famous short stories, The Artificial Nigger, the grandfather character denies that he knows his grandson and is forgiven by the child, which bring the grandfather to point of shock and grace. The story goes, “He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that some sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.”


Perhaps sad events in the world should shock us to the realization of grace and beyond – to a place where bad news does dull our senses, but rather awakens them to care even more deeply for those who suffer.

The Complete Stories

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