For three of my high-school years I lived in a rural community. I considered myself an intellectual and a different sort of person from most of my classmates. It was a time when my mind was waking up, and all sorts of new ideas and interests drew me and absorbed my thoughts, and there didn't seem to be anyone I could talk with. I did not expect to find much common ground with most of my school-mates. In fact I found more than I expected but still felt painfully out of place.
But I remember a conversation with a girl in study hall one day when I was trying (I think) to help her with something she had written. I don’t even know why I was helping her – she was not one of my friends, and I wasn’t asked to help others very often; yet, in memory, it was a comfortable and familiar situation. The surprise (and reward) in it all was discovering how alike we were at a deep level. What she wrote about, though awkwardly, was the same sort of reflection that occupied me at that time, the same deep questions and wonder. More - there was some quality in her writing and the whole situation that made it very clear that what I saw in this girl I would find in any person, in every person, if I knew how to look.
Several years later in college I was listening to an acquaintance talk about something very difficult that had happened to her. It had arisen from an incident that was downright ugly, and which she had caused. Despite that, she spoke of how she had been taken advantage of and hurt by others who, in her opinion, should have known better and been kinder to her. In my own mind, I did not entirely agree, and I certainly was distressed by her response to the incident – she had taken some actions that had resulted in a lot of hurt to many people, including me. So what she was saying was very selfish – self-serving. And yet… beneath that I could see very dimly the way she saw her inner self, as deserving of love and consideration. On one hand I was astonished at the ease with which she ignored or refused to see the harm she had caused others and the stupidity of what she had done herself, while on the other, I was even more astonished at her expression of a very real sense of inner value – something in it marked it as completely true.
Both of these experiences were important to me. From the first I took the sense that it is not only the bright ones or the thinkers who have a deep understanding of things – it is common to all; what differs is the ability or even the desire to articulate it. And in the second, I had a momentary glimpse of the very heart of another person – not through love or esteem, but almost by chance. Again, it seemed to me that what I saw was not unique but common to all people – that there was something about this young woman, and about every person, that had value in itself, without any action on their part. This was not something I thought out or discussed. It was something I saw directly, as simply self-validating as sunlight.
It is also something that, in fact, I have not spoken of much with others.
Finally, there are a whole group of experiences I’ve had that were very precious to me. They were not planned or expected – almost random, and on the surface, quite trivial. Here is just one of them.
In my early thirties, in New York, I lived in a women’s residence for awhile. I was friends with a group of other residents, and one Saturday morning, one of them, Brenda Lewis, and I decided to have lunch at a nearby restaurant. After eating, a walk seemed like a really good idea, so we just wandered. We started near Union Square, where the restaurant was located, and walked west, just rambling along, looking in store windows as we pleased, and talking. It was probably after more than an hour of walking that we found ourselves near the west-side docks. With a little looking, we found a dock we could walk out on.
Just south of us, at the next dock, was a cruise ship, the Rotterdam, preparing for departure. Even as the ship’s horns began to blow, two crew-men in a small dingy were still painting the hull with immensely long-handled rollers. The dingy quickly pulled around to the other side and disappeared from our view. We could see a few people going up the gangplank nearest the bow- the only one we could see. Then after about fifteen more minutes, the ship began moving – I can not even remember if it was being pushed by tugs or was under its own power. But there were a couple of small boats near it full of people waving good-bye, and other people lining the rails waving back, and throwing long streamers – some of which stuck to the still wet paint on the hull. Slowly the ship pulled out into the Hudson, turned south away from us, and moved slowly down the river and out of view.
There was nothing special about this, and yet I was full of happiness and energy. It was something wonderful… impossible to identify, but impossible to mistake, and so undefined that there seemed nothing to say about it. Brenda and I agreed we’d had fun, a lovely afternoon – and that was it. I have no idea if it meant anywhere near as much to her; quite possibly it did not. It was not that sort of “event” - it was not any sort of event. I have a small list of such non-events – treasures.
Recently my mother told me of such an event in her life, and a number of years ago reading Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, I found another beautifully described. Here and there I continue to find such references or descriptions.
The link between all these experiences and insights finally dawns on me: these are moments of touching what is at our heart, the deepest and most real quality that, in fact, is our origin and our end.
This is what religion should be helping people to connect with.