We shouldn’t need a designated day to remind us to celebrate epiphanic gifts, however, January 6 can be a good annual reminder. January 6 is the day reserved by some Christians to celebrate the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem. However, for all people, epiphanies are those “Little Prince moments” when we realize that “what is essential is invisible to the eye,” and that life without them would be a lot more dreary and monotonous.
Epiphanies can be described as a dawning or awakening, a minor “a-ha-moment” or an all encompassing, transformational experience. They have been categorized as physical, like John Muir recovering his eyesight; mental as in Archimedes “eureka” moment discovering his buoyancy principle, or spiritual, as in St. Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.
What started as a simple “a-ha” question about the importance of dissecting fetal pigs, exploded into a major epiphany that sent me on a 24-year vision-quest. The years included painful events like John Muir quipping, “Sometimes God has to nearly kill us to get us going in the right direction,” however, many epiphanies were shared with me by students interacting with each other and Mother Nature. Although they cannot be predicted, similar to Pasteur claiming “chance favors the prepared mind,” epiphanies are more likely experienced by those searching for truth, beauty and goodness.
C.S. Lewis lamented the fact that it took the death of his beloved wife to show him that he was surrounded with an endless array of epiphany experiences that he was blind to.
Walt Whitman lived in a constant epiphanic state when he wrote, “To me, every hour of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.”
For 30 years I had the honor and privilege of teaching next door to Peter Ainslie. Pete taught English classes and, each year, we shared senior students. He had a deep appreciation for Nature (and naturalist-writers) and usually allowed students to submit their Biodesign descriptive papers for credit in his Expository writing class. We were chatting one day and, out of the blue he mentioned, “Those trips are really epic events, aren’t they? I love hearing about the many epiphany moments that the kids often have.” I felt blessed for being allowed to share in hundreds of those events and only a precious few are included in Biodesign Out For A Walk.
In a strange and wonderful synchronicity, last week I received an e-mail from an 82-year-old man from Florida. He mentioned that he had searched the web, looking for his long-lost-friend Peter Ainslie. Evidently he located the blog I posted about Peter several months ago and wrote:
“Peter Ainslie and I grew up together in a small town of Chatham, MA on the elbow of Cape Cod. We were best friends through college, but I lost touch with him and Joan when they went west in the late 1950s. I have never met another human with as great an imagination as Peter and I am hoping that you may be able to provide me with some information about him.”
I spent a couple of hours chronicling the events of Peter’s amazing life.
A couple years after I retired, I received a postcard from France. The photo was taken on a trail winding up into the French Alps. The scenery was fantastic and the scene included a rustic bench with a cross erected next to it. The written message: “I was hiking alone and sat down to rest. The fantastic scenery reminded me of Yosemite and then, in a flash, the whole year of Biodesign made perfect sense to me. I understood! I got it!”
I was surprised by a moment of righteous indignation. ‘Wait a minute,” I thought, “I have never had a revelation like that!” Fortunately, my little pique of envy resolved into joyful celebration and I shared her eureka moment! I understood! I got it!
And finally, last week I got a phone call from JL who was in the Class of ’87. He was both excited and alarmed as he shared: “Lowell, I am in the middle of my life and it suddenly dawned on me how much of it I have spent allowing others to attempt conform me into the person they wanted me to be. I remembered back to our Biodesign Class and how difficult it must have been for you to teach and do things that others did not agree with.”
I appreciated his thoughtfulness and remembered Richard Bach’s wonderful little book, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” After achieving a major break-through in flying, Jonathan was “called to the center of the circle for shame” for attempting to break a million years of instinctive sea gull behavior that mandated, “sea gulls fly to eat and not for the joy of flying.”
I was not alone in my struggles to try to get students to seek epiphanies. John Muir and RW Emerson urged their readers to look for transcending experiences.
Henry Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
And finally, St. Augustine wrote: “Men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.
Happy hunting for epiphanies!