Making Meaning: Learning How to Give Light
by Jennifer Paros
Give light and the darkness will disappear.
When my oldest son was eleven and about to graduate from elementary school, he broke out in hives that were so large and pervasive they covered his back. I told him hives are sometimes stress-related and can go away on their own. And so they did. But soon, a pattern emerged: when he was home, the hives appeared; when he was at school they faded. I suspected he was concerned about changing schools and that those fearful thoughts abated when he was busy, soothed by his familiar routine, then resurfaced at home once he had time to worry. This pattern continued for several days until one morning he awoke with the face of a battered prizefighter. The hives had infiltrated his lips and eyelids. That day, we took him to the pediatrician – just in case it was something other than hives, which it wasn’t.
When we returned home, my son and I sat out on a bench in our backyard. Soon he pointed to the sky and an airplane going by and told me someone with a parachute had just jumped. I hadn’t seen it and commented how unusual that was. Then I suggested he’d seen the parachuting person to help him remember that even though going to middle school might be a big leap, he’d still be okay. He too had something akin to a parachute that would provide a safe landing. He considered this; we sat for a while, and from then on, there were no more hives.
I applied a meaning to his experience that served him. I could have applied other meanings: about him being an anxious person, about his vulnerability, about his body’s ill health. But those meanings wouldn’t have encouraged him to remember who he really was – a strong, capable, resilient person.
Israeli teacher Chen Miller describes how, in her first year of teaching, she entered her classroom of second graders and met a child who “cursed, spat, and screamed”. She went up to him and said, “I know you have a big heart, I know that you’re clever, I know that you’re a good boy.” He called her stupid and explained how everyone thought he was “disturbed.” She persisted with, “You have a big heart, you’re clever, and I know you’re a good boy.” He ran out of the classroom. The second week, the same thing happened and she offered him the same message. The third week, when she entered the room, he had placed his chair next to hers and had “chosen” her as his teacher.
. . . whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.
When Chen Miller saw that boy in her classroom and witnessed his behavior, she had a choice – to focus on what was on the surface or to hold her attention on something deeper. At the end of the school year, the little boy asked her how she knew children were good. She told him that up until the fifth grade she couldn’t read, write, or work with numbers; how she thought she had nothing of value to offer. In moving through a school system that was often ready to give up on her, she came to know that what appears and is expressed externally does not determine what can be or what actually is underneath.
If Chen Miller had committed to the meaning first applied to her, that she was broken, she would not have remembered and grown into the person she really is. And if she had joined others in labeling her student as “disturbed”, it would have hindered her ability to hold the light for him so he too could see something more in himself. There are all kinds of truths, facts, observations, and realities, but there is always more, which can only be accessed through the intentional release of any negative meaning that was originally assigned.
The Quakers have a prayerful intention of holding in the light. They focus upon someone facing difficulty and imagine the person surrounded by the light of love. They place their attention on the power of this profound kindness – a means of seeing through any previously created definition or explanation. When we want more for others and ourselves, we must learn to see more. Looking beyond the limits of our own thinking, we find greater clarity and compassion; then in turn, we are able to offer that light to each other.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.