The Enduring Resonance of Being
By Aubrey Ford, Words for the Journey
“Words for the Journey” is an ideal medium for sharing the insight, beauty and power of language. Well-intentioned and well-crafted words can enlighten, heal, empower, illuminate, and awaken. I have revered words since I was young, probably inspired by my mother who was among the first copywriters in the early days of the Martin Agency and lead writer on its creative team that originated the Virginia is for Lovers campaign. Language and discourse have obviously been critical elements of my own profession as a trial lawyer for forty years. My left brain has commandeered most of my life, so concepts, thought and expression have reigned ascendant.
Over time, however, I have become increasingly aware of the inherent limitations of language. How does one adequately express in words the ineffable sight of an exquisite sunset, the feeling of romantic love, a moving piece of music or a transcendent experience? Correspondingly, I have realized that some of the most profound revelations in my life arose from observation of others’ actions rather than their eloquent dialogue or prose. There is just a different quality to the experience.
For example, I have on occasion – like many of you I suspect – witnessed a completely random, spontaneous, and selfless act of kindness by one person to a complete stranger. This resonates deeply within me in an embodied way that is unlike intellectual illumination. It feels like a spark of grace rather than a spark of insight. Similarly, when I observe someone who is truly present with another, it seems to strike some universal chord deep within.
All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.
— James Russell Lowell
This also occasionally happens when I am in the company of someone who manifests in his or her demeanor a quality of presence that is sublime and authentic. I can remember attending a silent retreat in Colorado with Thich Nhat Hanh in which he led us all on a walking meditation into a forest. He then sat quietly on the ground with the children near him and adults surrounding them. A monk served him tea. I will never forget the peace of that moment - his reverential and deliberate sipping of the tea, his intimate connection with the eyes of the individual children and his slow, joyful glance upwards towards a singing bird. All in blissful silence. I looked around at the radiant faces of the children and adults and understood that all of us were sensing the presence of grace.
I was deeply touched by a wordless scene in the movie 13 Conversations About One Thing. Beatrice, played by Clea Duvall, had reached rock bottom as a young woman who had failed financially and romantically, suffered debilitating injuries when struck by a car, and could no longer perceive anything good in the world. In the scene, she stood on a crowded city street and planned to step in front of a moving bus to end it all, but for some reason she looked up across the street to a sea of people and happened to catch the eye of a stranger who looked at her … and smiled. As she described it later, “that smile broke the spell”. That scene in the movie emanated from an actual event in the screenwriter’s own life.
“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am close friends with a couple who seem to be incessantly seeking ways to reach out and include in their lives and activities people without privilege or opportunity. No announcements. No explanations. Just living it. Their selfless modeling of their faith is an inspiration beyond the capacity of an essay or lecture.
Observing these often silent acts of kindness, presence, and benevolence tends to generate a visceral and abiding response within me - a sense of humanity’s “better nature” and the interconnectedness of the human species. It is a felt experience, an embodiment of unconditional love that resonates within me and is more enduring than words or concepts.
“Our gifts are the many ways in which we express our humanity. They are part of who we are : friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust, and many others. These are the true gifts we have to offer each other.
— Life of the Beloved, by Henri Nouwen
These rare occasions also reinforce the transformative power of personal action and conduct. If these small unspoken acts of generosity, presence and authenticity so dynamically resonate within me, isn’t it likely that such an act by any of us could have a similar impact upon others? Upon the recipient? Upon an unknown observer? Upon others who are subsequently touched by them? Upon the collective unconscious? We can never really know how deeply we have touched another by such conduct or how expansively the ripples of healing and meaning and joy emanate outward. All I know is that when I witness such actual manifestations of love and grace, the feeling and memory of them are indelibly etched in my psyche in a much more vivid way than the impact of my historically revered thoughts and words.
This dynamic effect upon others of wise and benevolent action supports Thich Nhat Hanh’s observation that “We move into the sacred when we know how to be peace rather than merely talking or writing about it.” A worthy aspiration indeed as we enter this new year.
Aubrey Ford currently serves as President of Chrysalis, maintains his practice as a civil trial attorney, and retains occasional obligations as father of grown-up Aubrey and Billy.