On the Lighthouse

The lighthouse at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia

The lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

Perhaps it is buried in my genes, the heritage of hundreds of years of fishers going out to sea, but the lighthouse holds a special place in my thoughts.

It is hard to say what frames one’s artistic vision, what metaphors resonate most deeply with one’s identity, what gives voice to one’s thoughts in ways both passionate and authentic. Some metaphors change with time, out of the inevitable shifts due to growth and maturity, but others remain, root metaphors of who we are and how we see the world.

I am an uneasy user of social media, very much the digital immigrant, communicating with far less poise and confidence than the younger generation of digital natives that surrounds me. My profile picture never changes, while around me others change their pictures almost with the wind.

I was moved to think about this difference, and what the picture of the lighthouse actually means that marks this blog, after I logged into Facebook recently. Out of grief at the loss of a friend, one of my friends had changed her picture to a black screen. This then changed all of the images of her in earlier posts and messages to black as well.

It was unsettling. It’s one thing for the face we present to the world to change with the day, as our moods and experiences change. It is quite another for that mood, in effect, to go back and alter who we were before, whether it is to make light of our previous grief or to darken the exuberance of our earlier joy.

The decision I made a year ago, instinctively, to make the lighthouse my root metaphor and leave it, unchanged, to mark whatever I write now makes more sense. It was not the result of my uneasy familiarity with the medium. It was something else.

The lighthouse served one purpose. It warned mariners passing at night or in the fog of the dangers of travelling toward it, the hidden rocks and currents that spelled certain peril and likely disaster if the warning was ignored. The light shone for miles, revolving and flashing out the signal in the darkness. When the fog rolled in, as it often did in certain seasons of the year, the horn would also sound, sending the same message of caution and concern.

Tending the lighthouse was not an occasional job. The lighthouse had to be manned, every night, all year long, because one never knew just when a ship would be passing by in the darkness, depending on the message in light or sound to navigate safely through to its destination.

The lighthouse keeper cared nightly for people whom he (or she) would never meet, never knowing whether there was a point to the day’s labour of preparation or the night’s work tending the light. When the fog rolled in, cutting off everything including the stars, even the light was futile. There was only the foghorn, operated by hand throughout the long night and into the early morning, operated out of a steadfast duty and concern for the safety of those who might possibly be passing by, unseen and in silence.

The lighthouse and its keeper never determined any ship’s course, nor its speed, nor its destination. The captains of passing ships made those decisions for themselves and their crew, choosing whether to heed the information and the warning the light and horn provided, determining what these messages meant for where they were and where they were headed.

* * * * * * *

The possibilities for public expression the internet provides are almost literally without limit. There are as many reasons, spoken and unspoken, that impel people to tell others what they think, what they feel, what they see, as there are contributors to the general cacophony that constitutes social media today. For every contributor, there are many more commentators, generating mound upon mound of opinions and (usually) dubious insights.

Instead of the solitary light, moving steadily with purpose, there is a lightshow of sparkles and dazzles and glare. Instead of the solitary sound of the foghorn, rolling out across the sea in counterbalance to the fog, there is a deafening array of tweets and blares and noise, assaulting the ears just as the lights blind the eyes.

So, it may be quaint, even antiquated, but I find value in the image of the lighthouse, and hope that what I write and post will serve the purpose that the lighthouse always served for my ancestors over many generations.

There is no place for commentary on its work, unless the keeper fails in his or her duty. There is no change with the seasons of life, nor the moods of the day — all those personal elements are present, but they don’t change the responsibility and the duty that follows from it.

I have no idea who reads what I write, whether friend or random stranger, nor how far out to sea the light or the sound might carry, nor what destinations are affected by the way passing ships interpret the messages that are communicated.

But you can be sure that the metaphor, like the picture, will remain the same, so long as I tend the lighthouse on these pages. What is written will be out of concern for passing strangers as much as for treasured friends, expressions of care as well as warnings of dangers and perils ahead.

We choose the future, daily, as we go about the tasks that define our responsibilities in everything from our families, to our communities, and to the global community of which we are inescapably a part.

A sustainable future, however, comes only out of choices grounded in principles that are resilient in the face of change. As individuals, as communities, as a society, we need to adapt in the face of change, but not lose sight of who we are, where we come from, where we are going, and how we should behave en route.

Perhaps when I have written my last blog, my younger friends might change their picture for a day to that lighthouse, to honour my memory and to let its light shine back to the start of our friendship. I would not want their picture to go black, however, for any reason, however deep their grief.

After all, there are always people, beyond the horizon of what we can see, who depend on the light we cast out into the darkness, every day.

We will likely never meet them, nor will they know what it has cost us to be faithful to who we are and what we are called to do.

But we must still tend our light, without fail, to keep them out of harm’s way.