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Starting Point

Bearing the lightness of being


There are creatures that live in the oceans’ depths. Nature has equipped them with all they need to survive and flourish there. Amazingly some denizens of the deep have built-in lights so that they can find their way in the murky, cold depths. All are adapted to survive the enormous weight of the waters above and around them. I am sure that some scientist has examined such creatures to learn more about how we humans can better deal with pressure.

Up here on land, it is no less miraculous that above us stretches layer upon layer of the atmosphere a weighty mass of considerable tonnage and we do not feel a thing. Oh, the air may feel heavy at times, but we hardly think of it. We go through our days and nights bearing up quite well under a mass that would terrify us if told to carry it in some other way.

It seems that we collapse under other forms of pressures those that come from within, or from the past or future. An unkind word from one we love can cave in the strongest of hearts on a vulnerable day. And who of us does not know how to apply just the right weight on a person we want to write off? Silence can have its own heaviness, velocity and direction. The sense of being left out or cut off can bear more heavily on us than the universe that is above us.

I like looking at black and white photographs especially old ones, ones from the past, of a long ago time. I have a screen saver from The New York Times that shows slide after slide of pictures taken at Coney Island in the early part of the last century. There are lovers on the beach and a man riding high in the air in an amusement park ride. He smiles from high above the boardwalk. There is a picture of thousands on the beach and another photo of a famous parachute jump. There is a presence that I feel looking at the faces, the eyes of those brought close enough to the lens of that long gone camera. People look at me decades after a sunny day on a Brooklyn beach, never knowing back then that an image of their eyes and smiles would communicate something to a priest in an apartment in 2002. Over the years I have saved old photographs from garage sales and flea markets. I still have some of them, my collection of black-and-white or sepia-toned smiles and shy glances into a fine ground glass lens.

Images entice me. They ask me to enter another time, another place. A place preserved in image on a screen, a place I can only imagine.

And in my imagining what I always leave out, or what is always denied me, is the weight of that time and place. The heaviness that was life back then cannot come through. The worries, the pressures, the fears and weak-heartedness hide behind eyes and smiles, all evaporated by the white sun shining on black and gray images of those long dead. But of course they look at me and smile. They seem to be alive and waiting for some recognition when my computer “sleeps” and the saver saves.

Images are light in both senses of that word. They both glow and weigh nothing. I can pass my hand over the screen and touch nothing. I cannot feel the weight that was the life that was and is now gone.

The life of this present day is light and dark, too, with a density that is time and a weight that is longing and mystery, all together, all at once. We feel it. It weighs on us. It hurts and beckons.

A screen saver saves a screen from, I suppose, the pressure and the heat of light.

Humans save each other with and from the light that is in us, in our words and eyes and efforts to love, to heal, to forgive in the here and now, while we have this strange gift that is life. Tomorrow we may well be an image. Who knows?

But today we live and look with real eyes, hearts, words and places. And there is that weight that pressure, from above and below and all around what else can it be but a pressure to care, to hope, to love, to survive and to learn to lighten the load for another person?

The creatures of the ocean’s depths have light to navigate through the dark. We only have each other and whatever light we can share from the depths of this mystery of a single, and passing, day. I look at the images and know that I am here because those people now gone carried this burden of being. And in dying they passed it on to you and to me. I hope to live just this one day, and carry it well, and if need be, help someone else on whom this day may bear down hard.

Life cannot be solved. It cannot be saved. It can only be loved, shared, carried, handed down. It’s all in my pictures. It is all in today. It is the only image worth preserving.

Fr. James Behrens lives in Covington, La.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002