I live a long way from any major body of water. The nearest is Lake Superior, almost 350 miles from where I sit. Yet lately my mind has been preoccupied with lighthouses; more specifically, with how we can be lighthouses for one another.
We’re not born being lighthouses. In fact, we all begin our lives at sea, as passengers on our mother’s ship. In childhood, if we’re lucky, we’re content to frolic and play on deck as the ship rides the rolling swells. We don’t give much thought to where we’re going. As we get older, we graduate to the ship’s crew. We work on mastering the skills necessary to keep our boat afloat and to skipper it safely from one harbor to the next. In due course, if our soul is stout, we might even become the boat. We carry incredible loads through life’s stormiest waters without breaking apart.
Over time, circumstances require us to move back and forth among these seafaring roles. When facing a debilitating crisis, for example, we might revert to being a passenger, relying solely on the care of others. When those we love are in trouble, we might step up as first mate or captain. We might even volunteer to be the boat.
Whatever our situation out at sea, we’re always blessed by the sight of lighthouses on land. The playwright George Bernard Shaw once described lighthouses as the “most altruistic” of all buildings, because their only purpose is to serve. From the coasts of lakes and oceans, they shine up to 25 miles over the water, assisting navigators on their passage and warning boats away from jutting rocks and treacherous reefs. Most happily, they welcome vessels into port.
Life has a way of building some people into living lighthouses. Like their actual counterparts, they seem to exist first and foremost to serve, by their own free choice. They stand strong at the water’s edge, casting their light of love and understanding, of courage and hope, through the dark. Their light is limited—they can’t illuminate the entire sky—but what modest light they do offer, especially when joined to the light of others, helps guide us all to safety. It helps bring us home.
Not all lighthouses look the same. Indeed, the more distinctive they are, the better. So while one lighthouse might be a tall, white tower, another will be short and squat. Or square. Or eight-sided. Or painted with its own pattern of diamonds, stripes, or spirals. One lighthouse might be made of stone or brick, another of concrete, steel or cast iron. Even the shaft of light emanating from its lantern will have its own peculiar signature. It might be fixed and steady; it might revolve, flashing at different intervals, or in unique rhythms, or in diverse colors. The same is true of living lighthouses—no two alike, all of them valuable, all keeping watch over the world.
I jotted down the names of some living lighthouses I’ve been guided by throughout the years. (You might want to do the same, for fun.) On my list were teachers, mentors, friends who have so steadfastly companioned me, farmers and healers, changemakers and visionaries and creatives who have inspired me, clergy of many faiths, elders of many races, strangers into whose shaft of light I only ever bumbled once but was forever altered.…
For as wonderfully one-of-a-kind as these living lighthouses are, they share many basic traits. When I picture them as a group, this is some of what I see:
- They devote their light to others, not by controlling them or by telling them what to do, but by helping them to gauge where they are.
- Shining seems part of their nature. They can’t not shine. They don’t have to go anywhere or do anything special to accomplish their purpose. They just beam out from their little patch of earth.
- They don’t try to hide their light, or pretend they don’t have it, or judge themselves unworthy to shine.
- They don’t call attention to themselves or what they do. They just go about their business, as surely as the stars above. They regard themselves as utterly ordinary, humble instruments through which the gift of light can be magnified.
- They don’t care whom their light reaches. No matter the ship or its flag or the identities of those aboard, they always shine the same.
- They’re comfortable standing alone in the dark. They even expect to. After all, lighthouses are rarely built right next to each other. But they trust that they’re in good, if invisible, company. Others too are shining, elsewhere along the coast.
- They’re resilient. They’re not indestructible, but they’re able to withstand punishing weather.
- They require careful tending. I can’t overstate this. Not even the most powerful or dedicated lighthouse can function without a keeper. If it’s to go on shining, someone must lovingly replenish its fuel, polish its lens, clean its windows.
Last week’s presidential inauguration ceremony included a dynamic poem by Amanda Gorman, who, though only 22 years old, is already a living lighthouse. She concluded her poem:
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
This world, so beautiful yet so battered by bewildering storms, doesn’t need more light to navigate by. The light we need is already here. But, out at sea, do we have the eyes to see it, beckoning from shore to shining shore? Do we have the eyes and the wisdom to follow it? Indeed, do we have the lives to become it—to learn to be lighthouses, built to bring one another home?
You know the answer.