In her book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom, Stories That Heal” (Riverhead Books, $9.49), medical doctor and writer Rachel Naomi Remen shares this story.
When she was 14 years old, she took a summer job working as a volunteer in a nursing home for the aged. This wasn’t easy for her. She was young, shy, and mostly afraid of elderly persons. One day she was assigned to spend an hour visiting a 96-year-old woman who had not spoken for more than a year and suffered from severe dementia. Rachel carried a basket of glass beads with her, hoping that she could engage the elderly woman into stringing beads with her. It was not to be.
She knocked on the door, received no answer, and entered to see the woman sitting in a chair, staring out of a window. She sat in a chair next to the old woman and, off and on, for the next hour attempted to draw her attention. She never succeeded. In her words, “the silence in the room was absolute.” The woman never once acknowledged her presence, never even looked at her, and simply continued to stare out of the window.
When a bell rang to signify that her hour with this woman was over, Rachel got up to leave, turned to the old woman, and asked, “What were you looking at?” The woman turned to her and said, “Why, child, I was looking at the light.” Rachel was momentarily stunned, not by anything extraordinary in those words, but by an extraordinary expression of a sort of rapture, in the old woman’s face. As a 14-year-old, Rachel had no idea what lay behind that extraordinary facial expression. It would take her years to find out.
She went on to become a medical doctor, a pediatrician, who helps deliver babies. When she helped deliver her first baby and the newborn opened its eyes, she saw in the face of that baby that same expression she had seen all those years before in the face of the old woman. That baby too was looking at the light — uncomprehending, mute, in a kind of rapture, fixated on a light it had never seen before.
What’s the parallel between the expression of a newborn opening its eyes for the first time and the expression of an elderly person staring into the light? Rachel Remen’s image captures it.
In essence, if you live long enough, there will come a time when your old ways of knowing will no longer serve you, your heart will be forced to look beyond its wounds, your old securities will all fall away, and you will be left staring into a very different light. This will radically shift your gaze, strip you of most everything that used to make sense, render you infantile again, and leave you mute, staring silently into the unknown, into its beckoning light. Why? What’s happening here?
When a baby is born, it leaves a place that is small, confining, and dark, but protective, nurturing, and secure. It also leaves the only place it has ever known, and it can have no idea of what awaits it after birth. Indeed, could it think consciously, it would no doubt find it difficult to believe that anything, including its mother (whom it has never seen), exists outside the womb. Hence, a baby’s facial expression when it first opens its eyes and looks into the light — awe, bewilderment, rapture.
We are born out of one womb into yet another. We live in a second womb, our world, which is somewhat bigger, somewhat less confining, and somewhat less dark, and which like our mother’s womb offers protection, nurturing, and security. For most of our lives, this second womb serves us well, giving us what we need. When we are young, healthy, and strong, there seems little reason to shift our gaze toward any other light. The womb in which we are living is providing enough light. As well, it’s the only place we know. Indeed, left to nature and ourselves, we have no assurance that there is any place beyond it.
Moreover, we share this too with a baby in the womb. From the moment of its conception, a baby already has the imperative for its impending birth encoded in its body and soul. There comes a time when it must be born into a wider world. So too for us. We also have the imperative for an impending birth from our present womb encoded in our body and our soul. Hence, along with an unborn baby in the womb, we too share a certain “insanity” for a wider light.
In a poem entitled “The Holy Longing,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed this poetically:
Now you are no longer caught / In the obsession with darkness, / and a desire for higher lovemaking / sweeps you upward.
Distance does not make you falter, / now, arriving in magic, flying, / and finally, insane for the light, / you are a butterfly and you are gone.