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Starting Point

Look up and see the light of day


Mr. Wang was from China, and I worked with him in New York many years ago. We programmed computers for a Wall Street firm. There were a lot of programmers in those days -- men and women from all over the world. Ella was from Russia. Ohm was from India. Jaime was from Puerto Rico. I was from New Jersey.

We worked in a large, well-lit room, which had large windows that faced the north. We were separated from each other by felt partitions that did not keep us from chatting. Mr. Wang worked at the far end of the room, in a corner. He did not speak English very well and was a quiet man to start with. He always had the kind of a smile that seemed to convey that he knew everything about reality or was in a perpetual and blissful state of oblivion. He never said. Well, we never asked.

One afternoon the power failed throughout the Wall Street area. The coffee makers stopped. The lights went out. The computers crashed. The water coolers stopped gurgling. The room was darkened. We were on the 30th floor and when we looked out the windows, we saw that power was gone all over the place.

So we sat and chatted. Some gathered in groups. Some wanted to look as if they were still working, writing on paper at their desks.

Mr. Wang sat staring at his screen. He was not smiling. He never looked up. He did not notice that the lights were out, that the coffee machine had stopped, that the water cooler was silent. He peered into the darkness of his screen. He leaned closer to the darkness and with one finger began to tap on his keyboard. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. Nothing happened. He hit the side of his monitor. Tapped again. Hit the monitor again. Then he blurted something in Chinese and pushed his chair back and stood and saw us looking at him in astonishment.

He then looked up and saw that the lights were no longer really lights, existentially speaking. Then he looked out the window, and it dawned on him that the Wall Street area was without power. And he smiled that smile of his and then laughed, and we laughed with him. He turned to his computer and gently patted the top of his monitor in an apologetic gesture. He sat down and smiled at the blank screen. And so he sat for the next hour or so, at which time the power returned, and it was back to business as usual.

Having a bad day today? The kind of day where the power seems to have gone out? No lights? No coffee? The world is laughing at you? No cool drink? Like, things right in front of your face are not working to your liking? Well, the cause of such a horror could be many things. It could be far or near or both. It could affect everything or just a few things. It could be a while before things return to normal or your world may brighten again in a few seconds. It really does not matter what or where the glitch is because you have no power to fix it. Just try not to bash the wrong thing, the wrong person, your dog or yourself.

Raise your eyes to the nearest window and take in the light of day. It is more enduring than our foibles and can always make us feel good if we get our noses out of our little darkened screens.

There is always a bit of light coming through life despite those power shortages that can blow our existential fuses and temporally chill our motherboards. It comes through windows, through people who love us even when we bash them a bit, through saying a prayer or two in whatever language.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001