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Sermons: “The Light That Shines Out Of A Life

Once in a while, I find myself stuck in traffic, only slowly inching past a construction crew or toward one of the more difficult intersections. If I am at peace with myself, which sometimes happens even in heavy traffic, instead of cursing the other drivers with whom I have helped to create this mess, I can allow myself to be aware that every car contains people who are just as busy as I, just as focussed on their own deadlines and commitments, just as fully the centers of their own psychological worlds as I.

This can be a very freeing awareness, about as close as I have ever come to Black Elk's vision of standing at the center of the universe. I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea that everyone I meet lives in what amounts to a separate reality, made separate by differing experiences and genetic gifts. As it happens, the realities which most of us inhabit overlap a great deal, so it isn't too difficult to find common experiences that go beyond the fact that we all eat some kind of food.

But some people have experiences that are so far removed from what we consider the normal, or have psychological or neurological differences that are so profound, that we cannot enter into their realities or even contemplate them.

Consider deafness, for example. From the perspective of someone who has experienced sound and spoken language, deafness would mean the loss of a truly significant ability, but the world of a person who has never heard a sound, who has no idea whatsoever that sound exists, can embrace a wholeness that has no room for the idea that anything is missing from life. Those of us who can hear have no notion of what a non-hearing person perceives with the skin or in the resonance of the lungs and the sinuses. We don't know about the meanings and ambiguities conveyed by the facial expressions and postures of someone speaking, and we have only the most meager ideas about visual language, the phenomenon I find most fascinating.

Visual language, which we know as American Sign Language, is a complete and poetic language. It has its own grammar and syntax, which are spatial. Just as a given word in English may have several meanings, depending on its context and on the prefixes and suffixes we attach to it, just so a given sign can have a variety of meanings, depending on what motions and facial expressions accompany it.

For example, the sign for "look at." It's the one sign I know. If I want to convey the idea of staring, I hold it steadily. To look at something incessantly, I repeat the stabbing gesture several times. To gaze, I use the sign to describe a vertical circle, with nothing of the staccato quality of the other gestures, and hold it in a lower position. To watch something, I raise the sign higher and repeat the horizontal motion two or three times. To look for a long time, I make the vertical circle much larger. To look again and again, I make a half circle followed by a stabbing motion. Other variations are used to convey degree, manner, number, and so on.

Signing is indeed a language unto itself. It is capable of eloquence, poetry, puns and jokes, songs, and complex rhetoric. Signers from different parts of the country sign with different accents, and fluent signers even dream in sign, their hands moving as they sleep just as any of us might speak out loud during a dream. Signing involves much more than making gestures or patterns with the fingers. A fluent signer uses the eyes, the mouth, the position of the jaw, the angle of the head, the muscles in the neck, and the position of the shoulders to convey nuances of meaning, subtleties which escape most of us when we watch an interpreter  signing on television.

But deaf people become extremely adept at picking up the most subtle visual cues. Not having the ability to hear sound, they learn how to derive considerably more information from the senses that are left to them. In a test in China, it was found that deaf children could very accurately replicate nonsense Chinese characters which were made with a pen-light in a darkened room, while hearing children drew very sloppy versions of the same signs. The visual world of the deaf is packed with meaning that flows right past the rest of us unheeded. They live in a different reality, but not necessarily in a less vibrant one. If we learned to look, we could see the light that shines out of their lives.

If we learned, we could see the light that shines from many unexpected places. For example, Oliver Sacks describes a pair of severely retarded, autistic, psychotic twins, John and Michael, incapable of caring for themselves much beyond getting dressed and keeping themselves clean, who were able to perform startling feats with numbers. Given a date anytime in the last 40,000 years, almost instantly they would tell on what day of the week it fell. They had a phenomenal memory for digits. They could repeat any series of digits, no matter how long (3, 30, 300) with ease. Yet they were unable to perform the simplest calculations. Instead, they seemed to visualize their answers. Their eyes would scan from side to side as though they were reading a chart, stopping when they arrived at the right date or number. “We see it,” they always answered when asked how they performed their marvels.

Sacks tells of dropping a box of matches on the floor in their presence. Immediately both twins cried out, “One hundred eleven,” then John murmured, "37," Michael repeated, "37," and John said it a third time. Sacks counted the matches—111, which is 37 plus 37 plus 37. How could they count the matches so quickly? "We didn't count them," they said, "We saw the 111."

Oliver Sacks was interested in the depths of the twins as persons, rather than as patients in the hospital where they had lived for about 17 years. As he put it, he tried to "lay aside the urge to limit and test. He got to know the twins—observing them, openly, quietly, without presupposition, but with full and sympathetic phenomenological openness, as they lived and thought and interacted, quietly pursuing their own lives, spontaneously, in their singular way ." One day he chanced to overhear one of their conversations, which consisted entirely of numbers. John would say a number—a six figure number. Michael would catch it, savor it, nod and smile. Then he would say a six figure number in turn, and now it was John who would smile, nod, and appreciate it richly. They looked, says Sacks, like two connoisseurs tasting wine and swapping memories of great vintages they had known.

The numbers they were enjoying so much turned out to be primes, numbers that could not be divided by any other number except themselves and 1. With a table of prime numbers in hand, Sacks joined into the twins' conversation. He offered them an eight-figure prime. They both turned toward him, became still, with a look of intense concentration on their faces, and after a long pause simultaneously broke into smiles. They had somehow tested Sacks's number, found that it was indeed a prime, and greeted it with joy.

The game quickly grew more demanding, going to nine, then to ten, then to twelve-figure primes, and thus beyond the scope of Sacks' table of prime numbers. An hour later the twins were swapping twenty-figure primes, well beyond the abilities of any normal mathematician to check, a time-consuming job even for a computer, and proof positive that they had not merely memorized a table of prime numbers at some time in their lives, since no such table existed for twenty-figure primes.

For Oliver Sacks, the discovery that the twins found joy in prime numbers provided evidence that in spite of all their limitations in regard to other, so-called normal, modes of living, their world was full of meaning which only they could tap. Their joy validated their existence. It was the light that could shine out of their lives.

In a Sufi story, the famous Mullah Nasrudin is to judge a case between two men who are quarrelling. After listening to the first one tell his story , the Mullah is carried away by the logic of his presentation. "You are right," he declares. The second man indignantly demands to be allowed to make his case. He, too, is so eloquent and persuasive that the Mullah declares that he is right. At this point the Mullah's wife intervenes. "How can you say that," she asks. "They can't both be right." "You’re right, too," answers Nasrudin.

We "normals" have a hard time recognizing that the world can contain other realities than the one we inhabit. We don’t readily see that we can be right and they can be right, too, whoever they may be. We seem to feel that our standards should apply to everyone. Sometimes, we can be downright arrogant in our normalizing. Sometimes we are dangerous.

You will perhaps recall the uproar several years ago over who should become president of Gallaudet University for the Deaf. Three candidates had been presented to the board, two deaf, one hearing. They chose the hearing candidate, Elizabeth Zinser, but the student body rejected the appointment, went on strike, closed the campus, and forced the board to reconsider. Under pressure, they changed the appointment, making King Jordan, one of the deaf candidates, the new president.

This furor was not about prestige, but about the direction which instruction at Gallaudet and other schools for the deaf should take.

The students felt that their greatest chance at wholeness and at creative achievement lay in using American Sign Language. They knew, as the members of the board did not, that when they could communicate in sign, they gained the freedom of any fluent, native speaker using her native language. If they had to communicate in spoken language or through Signed English, they could never be more than cripples in the hearing world.

The board was concerned about their being able to receive communication from the non-signing, hearing world. The chair of the board had publicly included the statement that "the deaf are not yet ready to function in a hearing world," in her announcement of Zinser's appointment. She completely ignored the question of what the hearing world might have to learn from the deaf if they were equipped to develop to their fullest. Which would predominate, deaf culture or hearing culture? In this case, at least, the students were able to overcome the crippling pressures of the Board of Directors and assert the value of their own reality, of the light that can shine out of a life.

The mathematical twins, John and Michael, did not fare nearly as well. Even though they had lived side by side in the protective environment of institutions from a very early age, someone in charge decided when they were in their mid-thirties that they were too dependent on one another and that they should be separated for their own good.

They were moved into different half-way houses, where they now do menial jobs and, with close supervision, can venture out into the community. Deprived of their numerical "communion" with each other, they seem to have lost their strange numerical power and with it their chief joy and meaning in life. They now live lives that are considered socially acceptable, but where is their light?

We are all affected by social definitions of reality. Perhaps such definitions are necessary in order to promote cooperation and social order. On the other hand, we have all lost something of ourselves because while we were growing up we were constrained to fit within a socially defined reality, and the more creative or eccentric or spontaneous we were as youngsters, the more we experienced the pressures to fit in and march in step with the others.

Excellence that doesn't correspond to the defined values doesn't . show up on standardized tests. I'd like to propose an approach  that I heard about from the principal of a local school, an approach which he tries to instill in all the teachers in his school. Instead of saying, "These are the skills we need to develop in students,” and designing the curriculum to produce those skills, Dick suggests that we should be asking, "What is this student really good at, and how can we, as teachers, as parents, as friends help her or him develop to the fullest, using his or her interests and aptitudes as a stimulus for learning?" In other words, how do we discover and encourage the light that can shine out of a life?

To do this, we have to follow the model of Oliver Sacks, relax the boundaries of our own realities and try to appreciate another person's way of moving through the world. We are often quick to criticize or evaluate. I'm suggesting that instead we become quick to appreciate, to savor, even to be enlarged by the ways that other people define their realities. We miss the point when we argue  over whether it is better to eat meat or grain, to try to constrain the universe to the measure of either the dirt or the open air. None of us makes an entire world, even though we may each live in a separate reality.

We have much to learn from those around us, and probably more to learn from those who are different in significant ways than from those who are rather like ourselves. People who have learned to live with characteristics that set them apart from others develop strengths of character and ingenuity and humor in trying to find their place in an indifferent or even hostile world. They also learn compassion, because they have first-hand knowledge of how easily one's world can fall apart.

Each of you inhabits a reality which operates according to its own logic; uses its own language and symbols, and provides its own system of rewards. We are all enriched by each and every person around us in some way. Each of you can instruct the rest of us in important aspects of being human, and the same is true for the vast world of human beings beyond our walls. May we find the patience and the openness to discover the ways that we enrich each other's lives. May we learn to see the light shining out.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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