In the Beginning, the World Was Made of Light

For 2010-11 school year, my wife, Melinda Shaw, and I were granted a sabbatical from the Puget Sound Community School (PSCS), the unique middle & high school in Seattle we had co-founded in 1994. We chose to use the time away from the school to live in France with our two daughters, Chloe and Ella, who were 17 and 13 when the sabbatical began.

One of the things the sabbatical provided Melinda and me was more unstructured time than we’d had since before the school began and having had children. Certainly, with two teens to take care of we had plenty of responsibility. But not needing to focus on a daily job allowed us to do many things we otherwise would not have been able to do.

This allowed the two of us to catch up on spending more focused time together, like going on regular dates during the day while the girls were in school. It also allowed us to bring focus to some personal development projects we’d either set aside or put on hold.

On the personal development side, I’ve long been a fan of audio programs for independent learning. Back in the 1980’s, I bought many cassette tapes of lectures from people like Bernie Siegel, Louise Hay, Barry Neil Kaufman, and Gerald Jampolsky. Without really knowing it, I had created a kind of graduate course for myself in progressive thought and human potential.

So it’s no surprise that while on sabbatical I really took to the phenomenon of podcasts, specifically those with a humanistic bent. Quite readily, appearing to me online was a plethora of audio programs, all for free. I wasn’t just smitten, I was hooked.

My favorite was and still is “This American Life,” which offers its fabulous radio program as a podcast a day or two after it airs on the radio. In France one day, I discovered “On Being with Krista Tippett” and highly recommend it to people interested in considering their life’s purposes.

One night, I listened to Tippett’s interview with Rachel Naomi Remen. I was surprised Remen’s name was not familiar to me. Her background and work is similar to that of Bernie Siegel and other people whose work resonated with me in the 1980’s. In the interview, Remen describes an encounter she had with her grandfather when she was a small child. Tippett herself was so moved by the story that she wrote about it:

“I’ve been ever after changed by her telling of the formative story of hope in her own early life. Her Orthodox rabbi grandfather, a student of the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, taught it to her on her fourth birthday. He called it ‘the birthday of the world:’ In the beginning, the world was made of light. But by some accident, the light was scattered, and it lodged as countless sparks inside every aspect of creation. The highest human calling is to look for this original light from where we sit, to point to it and gather it up and in so doing to repair the world — Tikkun Olam.”

Listening in our temporary French home, this message resonated with me in a profound way, aligning with my own beliefs. Over the years at PSCS, students had often asked me if I believe in God or have views on how the universe began, that sort of thing.

Frankly, I’ve long thought that having pat answers to these questions isn’t the best approach, especially when talking to children. Having them, it seems, causes people to be blinded intellectually. It is in searching for the answers that I find myself most nourished, and able to refine my thinking as I find new words for feelings. As an educator, I always wanted to create moments that do the same for children.

That said, the best illustration I ever gave my students in response to them asking is my basic understanding of a holographic image. I learned in college that holographic images can be recorded on glass. Looking at them, they appear 3-D despite being in a 2-D form, and seen from different angles give you the look of seeing the image from different perspectives.

That’s all good and interesting, I know, but what has fascinated me the most is that if the glass that holds the image is broken, each piece contains the whole image. It’s not like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that have to be reassembled to form a whole.

Each piece CONTAINS the whole.

So I would try to explain all this to the students and tell them that my belief is that each person is one piece of glass of a broken hologram, each of us containing the whole. Somehow, I felt, such an explanation not only was an honest answer to their question but left room for them to have their own interpretations, ideas, and beliefs.

Taking this a step further, perhaps something like the Big Bang is when the breaking took place, but how it happened isn’t important to me. What is important is my belief that our job as individuals is to contribute positively to the whole, doing our part to reunite or repair it.

You can see how similar this is to Remen’s grandfather’s story and is what got me all excited that night, having found these words to add to my way of seeing things. And I REALLY like the idea that the highest human calling is to look for the light and gather it up, kind of like a mystical janitor, I think.

Gathering up light is at the root of what I always wanted to do at PSCS and is a big part of why the school was created, perhaps THE reason.

When people would ask me what I was doing with my time in France, I often answered by saying I was writing a book about kindness. But I realized while listening to Tippett’s interview of Remen that the topic of kindness is really just a path to me gathering up the light and, hopefully, helping others have some insight into how to do the same.

I also realized that what the sabbatical was about was a chance for me to organize my thoughts, a form of mindfulness that might just be another way of gathering up the light.

Published by Andy Smallman

I work to promote ordinary activities that awaken kindness, cheerfulness, thoughtfulness & awe, helping people connect to their true nature and increase peace in the world.