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I am a sign reader. I read billboards. I look for indicators of change. I observe gestures, facial expressions—all to understand more clearly the nonverbal messages being delivered. I am not always accurate in my assessment, but I definitely believe there is power to be harnessed in the signs.
When I visited family in Connecticut, I spent much of my time reading and learning from the signs that surrounded me. My mother’s blindness and hearing impairment was a wonderful aid in the process. Her severe and progressive macular degeneration has left her bereft of sign language. She is no longer able to view and read people’s facial expressions and body language.
Additionally, her hearing impairment is both severe and increasing. Without clear sight and devoid of acute hearing, my mother is not certain she is accurately assessing conversations.
Are our remarks to be taken as jokes or as serious observations? Are we smiling with her or laughing at her? Are we angry or sad or happy or tearful? She does not know unless we clearly state our intentions. Unable to harness the power of signs, she is learning less and grieving more.
At the same time, her age and disability has evoked the Charles Bonnet syndrome—a term used to describe the situation when people with vision problems start to see things they know aren’t real. Sometimes called visual hallucinations, the things people see can take all kinds of forms from simple patterns, to straight lines to detailed pictures of people or buildings.
These can be enjoyable. Sometimes they can also be upsetting. The power that affirms or negates our feelings must be harnessed lest it cause serious emotional damage and prevent learning.
I watched a segment of Funniest Videos in which two young women were to decide what response would be forthcoming when a baby was presented with a surprise. My “mother- self” immediately knew what would occur.
The young women guessed, but did not watch for the signs that were all too familiar to me. They missed the slight widening of the eyes, the tiniest of frowns that began to emerge, the pursing of lips. Each time, as the “surprises” escalated, the baby’s response was not to cringe or burst into laughter—as the young women suspected—but to cry.
Those babies were not prepared for the “fun” that came with a surprising sound or sight. They did not yet know the signs indicated unexpected happiness. They knew only to be afraid of the unknown. That is how they read the signs given by well-meaning adults.
Is it possible they read the signs accurately? Were those adults less well-meaning that we thought? What signs do we present to others as we walk our way with them?
During the past number of weeks, the talk about healthcare has escalated, despite the passage of a bill in that regard. The escalation has evoked angry reactions, ill-tempered responses and signs of extreme distress. Truths and half-truths have joined company to muddy the waters and caused circular discussions.
Labels became ironclad signs of negativity. Liberals were proclaimed as persons ignorantly wed to socialism, communism and opposed to true democracy. Conservatives were equally demeaned as rigid, unmoving, promoters and protectors of the status quo.
Instead of communication, there was only accusation. Instead of movement across the aisle of life, there was refusal to admit the truths each side believed.
The powerful signs of respect, honor, acceptance and diversity were neither visible nor harnessed to promote learning. Mudslinging and name-calling were the order of the day. Sadly, we seem entrenched in the mire of our limited understanding and knowledge. Mired in that morass, forward movement is impossible.
What occurs on the national level is mirrored locally, in our personal and professional lives. Perhaps, it is the other way around. Perhaps, we bring to the national scene the practices we perpetuate in the personal arena. No matter which way it goes, the signs of pessimism, negativity, doom and gloom remain.
These, too, must be harnessed by and with the power of love. Jay Cormier, an adjunct professor of Humanities, writes: “God calls us to watch for the unmistakable signs of his [sic] love in our midst, to listen for words and opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation, to mark the moral and ethical icons of justice and mercy in our day-to-day lives.”
Watch for the signs of God’s love. Listen for words and opportunities that forgiveness and reconciliation. If they are not visible, we need to be those signs and make them visible. We need both to see goodness and thus believe in it and to believe in goodness and thus see it in action.
We need to look for and to look into the deeper meaning of the signs of divinity all around us. We need to find them, bring them with us and empower others to see them.
The discovery, revelation, acceptance, sharing requires an open heart and open mind. It demands a willingness to admit our own shortsightedness, our own mistaken opinions, our own limitations. It means we will eat humble pie and, ultimately, find it nourishing. That is the concrete experience of learning, the learning that comes when we read and harness the power of signs.
How does this harnessing happen? Will it demand huge amounts of time and energy? I believe it happens when we write a letter of apology, when we speak our truth kindly, when we stand firmly in our convictions, without ignoring or refusing to heed other convictions. I believe it comes into being when we talk with each other, not at each other.
The question remains: “Do we want to learn by reading and harnessing the power of signs or do we desire ignorance, my way or the highway, as our immutable bliss?”
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of “Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives” [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. Reach her at email@example.com.