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Esteemed Reader: July 2013


William Wordsworth
  • William Wordsworth

My heart leaps up when I behold  
A rainbow in the sky:  
So was it when my life began;  
So is it now I am a man;  
So be it when I shall grow old,
      Or let me die!  
The Child is father of the Man;  
I could wish my days to be  
Bound each to each by natural piety.
—"The Rainbow," William Wordsworth

Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

My young son, Ezra, who's six, sometimes has difficulty changing his rhythm as the day comes to a close, and can't sleep. He tears around the house like a tornado, pulling out books, playing with toys. His appetite though absent at the dinner table now rears up and demands a bowl of cereal or a mushroom omelet, like one who has not finished digesting the experiences of the day, and will "not go gently into that good night."

One such evening this spring, I had enough of convincing and cajoling, reading stories, lying-down-with, and otherwise working to change his state from the outside. So when I suggested we go for a short stroll down our road, he danced a little jig of excitement, for what I suggested was not just change of scenery—it was a special late-night walk with dad.

Like so many of the spring and early summer nights this year, the evening was beautiful. It was cool and clear as we walked into the night, with an occasional melodic buzzing of cicadas, and the first appearance of fireflies doing their bioluminescent dance in the fields and woods.

After awhile, Ezra spoke. "Look, dad, fireflies."

"Yes, Ezra," I replied, "beautiful."

We continued to walk in silence, and then, with a definiteness that immediately made me pay attention, he said, "You know, dad, everything has meaning."

It had the sound of someone giving resonance and space to words—of speech when it rises to a level above just talking, when something real is seen and spoken with an intent to communicate that meaning to another.

"Yes, Ezra," I echoed, working not to betray too much of the awe I felt as I considered his insight. "Everything has meaning."

As we continued to walk—talking, thinking private thoughts, or simply listening to the sounds of the night—I made an effort to bring alive in myself the sensibility Ezra had suggested.

I remembered the admonition of Muhammad—every sentiment in scripture has seven levels of meaning. A scriptural text can be taken literally, in the world of objects and bodies. Equally, psychological, cosmological, or spiritual meanings can be observed and felt. In this way the deeper meaning is not strictly figurative, but literal in a subtler realm. In this mode of inquiry the subtle meaning of perceptions and events becomes the gold to pan from our experiences in the flow of time.

Knowing that what Ezra had said was true, I pondered and sensed, asking myself, "In this moment, what is the meaning of the fireflies?"; "What is the meaning of stars in the canopy of sky, and the clouds obscuring some of the sky?"; and "What is the meaning of this company my son and are keeping with one another?"

In each case I felt a significance, and that meaning was a dimensional shift in magnitude from anything I could formulate in my mind. As a corollary to my inner inquiry, I finally asked, "Ezra, what do you mean, 'everything has meaning'?"

For a brief moment, he didn't respond. I could feel him looking inward, into what he was seeing. Then he said, "Dad, it's too much to say in words."

"Yes," I answered slowly. "I understand."

The balance of our walk had a lighter quality. We spoke carefully on all manner of subjects—his brother, his new bike, cicadas—with a consciousness that we were both listening to everything we said with an ear for a deeper significance; that each thing, though seemingly small and specific, was, in a larger sense, something we were discovering about ourselves. When we arrived home Ezra said, "I'm ready to sleep now, dad," which meant, "My experience of this day is now complete," and, as it is said, he was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

I am left with a sense that we all inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously, and everything has a meaning in each world. In the world of bodies and objects, meaning is what is known about things—it is the realm of applying learned information that is already known. The means of discovering the meaning of a larger world is to perceive from a disposition of not knowing with an ever-present question at the fore: What is this?

Everything is always broadcasting the inherent meaning of what it is. To look for this inherency, and exist in a state of wonder at what is constantly revealed, is to behold with the eyes of a child. In the words of Wordsworth, "The Child is the father of the Man."

Learning To Be Human is a curated selection of Jason Stern's "Esteemed Reader" columns available in book form. Click here for more information or to get your copy.

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