Have You Seen the Rainbow
by Michael Hardy
The words of science-fiction author Robert Heinlein: To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks.
Have you ever read the financial advice columns? I sometimes wonder if these people live in the real world. In answering questions posed by working people making $40,000, $50,000, maybe $60,000 a year, they advise: Never use credit cards, max out your 401(k) contribution, keep a year’s salary in a savings account for emergencies and pay all your bills on time. And if all that seems challenging they offer some helpful measures to cut your costs like … never eat. Don’t spend anything on entertainment. Take your vacations at home. Get a second job if you still can’t do it.
Maybe I exaggerate a bit, but it truly is just a bit. Much of what passes as prudent financial advice expects heroic acts of saving and an eye always fixed on one’s retirement years. We’re told to forget about fun and pleasure today so that in our later years we can get the highest possible income from what we’ve saved and accumulated.
Think about that. And then think about the song we just heard. It’s by Peter Mayer and it’s called “The Rainbow.” If you’re not familiar with Peter Mayer overall, you probably at least know his song “Blue Boat Home.” It’s in our teal hymnal.
The song is mostly about a conversation between a man and a leprechaun about a pot of gold. The legend of the leprechaun dates to the Middle Ages, and it’s one most of us probably know. The leprechaun is one of Ireland’s wee folk, a creature who can grant three wishes if captured, and who keeps his treasure at the end of the rainbow. In the song, Peter Mayer takes on the role of a man who spends so much time and energy searching for the pot of gold that he misses the beauty of the rainbow.
And that’s how many of us live. It’s how we’re taught to live, by our parents, by our society. By financial advice columns.
And within reasonable limits, it’s commendable. I do not wish to speak against planning ahead, against prudence and even frugality. It’s smart to not spend money like water on fleeting ephemeral things.
But this attitude is about much more than money.
It’s about an outlook on life that is always focused on something yet to come. It’s the person who is so intent on getting a promotion at work that she sees the job she has now as a chore and drudgery, something she does just adequately because she really wants to do something different. It’s the man who won’t date a woman if she’s not interested in marriage, because his mind is on having a wife and children rather than enjoying the moment today. It’s the devoutly religious person more concerned with getting into heaven than living an authentic life on earth.
You might notice a common thread in all of those examples: They’re self-defeating. If you do just a so-so job at the job you have, your chances of getting promoted will not be very high. If you reject a romantic partner because she doesn’t want to marry you today, you will never know if she might have changed her mind in six months. And there’s an old saying about that third example I mentioned: They’re called people who are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.
When you build your life around seeking the pot of gold, you don’t see the beauty of the rainbow.
Let’s take a few minutes to consider some of the lyrics in the song.
In the second verse, our character tells us that he “bought into it long ago, the story of the pot of gold.” That’s how it happens for so many of us. We’re taught to live for the future, and not always reminded to savor the present at the same time. We bought into long ago.
When you’re a kid, you’re always getting asked what you want to be when you grow up. A lot of times, adults ask the question because the answers can be amusing. Kids don’t always have the most realistic understanding of their career options. They want to be fairy princesses or super-heroes, cowboys or astronauts.
Before they’re too much older, though, the school system is ready to steer kids into college and career tracks. As early as middle school they’re expected to start making decisions, serious ones, about what they want to be when they grow up. They still have time to change their minds, which is a good thing because who knows at 13 what they want to be doing at 30?
That’s where it starts for most of us, this living always with an eye on the future. Bad? No, of course not. But there has to be a balance. Think about the future but live in the present.
As I get older, I become more and more convinced that this dual outlook is essential to living an authentic, vital life. Maybe we bought into the story of the pot of gold long ago, but we do not have to give up today to have a good tomorrow.
The song continues:
I dream I reach the end of the journey I’ve been on
And all I finally find is a smiling leprechaun
So I ask a wee impatiently, “tell me have you seen a pot of gold?
And he says “have you seen the rainbow?”
It’s not clear in the song whether the question changes our man’s outlook or not. Peter Mayer didn’t write a final verse in which he understands his mistake – the author of the song certainly understands it, but the character in the song may not.
But that’s often how these moments of awakening happen – someone else points out the essential truth, the question we’ve missed in our own mad search for a pot of gold.
I used to have a book called “Zen For Beginners.” It’s full of stories of students being enlightened, usually as the result of a teacher saying or doing something inscrutable.
For example, there is the story of Choa-chou, an eager young student. “One day he fell down in the snow and cried out ‘Help me up, help me up!’ A monk ran over and lay down beside him. Choa-chou got up and walked away.”
Now, presumably, Choa-chou learned something from this experience. The authors must have thought this little anecdote was important, since they included it. But what does it mean? I don’t know and they don’t explain.
But I do understand that the enlightenment often lies in the unexpected shift, the non-sequitur, the response that defies the student’s expectations.
And haven’t we all had an experience where someone says something, or we read something, that opens our minds to a new way to see things? It often takes the perspective of someone outside of ourselves to turn us to a new and better course.
As some of you know, I’m an editor at a magazine. As a journalist, and particularly as an editor, you spend a lot of time reading other people’s writing looking for errors. In an especially conscientious newsroom there will be several layers of editing from the time a writer turns in an article to the time it’s actually published, whether that’s online or in print.
Some of the editors are specialized – one editor will read the article to be sure it’s well-written, provides all of the needed information, doesn’t raise questions that it doesn’t answer and so on. Then the next editor will ignore all that and look closely at the mechanics of the writing. Spelling, capitalization, grammar, punctuation. And then a third editor will look up all the name spellings and job titles of people in the article to be sure they’re correct.
Of course in today’s environment, you’re not likely to find companies spending the money to make all of those jobs separate, but almost everything you read from a professional news source will have had at least two layers of editing before the audience sees it.
Why do we do this? Because it’s hard to see your own mistakes. A good reporter will self-edit her own work before ever turning it in, but she won’t see all of her mistakes. The first editor might also overlook something or add a new error that wasn’t there before. The more people who examine an article, the more likely it is that somebody will catch an error somebody else missed.
And all of life works this way. Pay attention to the people who know you. Pay attention to the great writers who know people in general. Be alert for the leprechaun asking if you’ve seen the rainbow … that is, the person asking you to see something differently than you ever did before.
It can come from anywhere, and it may not look like much. But this kind of a sudden shift in outlook is often just what we need to open our eyes to something larger.
Have you seen the colors gleam
And shimmer on a silent sea?
Have you seen the colors shine
Brightly in another’s eyes?
Have you seen a firefly, have you seen a lark?
Have you seen the life burning in your beating heart?
Have you seen the way the morning glows?
Have you seen the red and green and gold?
Tell me, have you seen the rainbow?
Years ago, when I lived in Pensacola, I had a friend that I talked about the big stuff of life with. At least, as big as you can perceive it when you’re 20 years old. Tom and I spend a lot of our free time together, doing not much other than sharing the time and talking about what our futures might hold.
Pensacola Beach has a nice long stretch of National Park land, so there are no hotels or houses on it, just occasional public parking areas and boardwalks. You can drive just a mile or two and get far away from city lights. Tom and I used to go out there now and then with binoculars for the millions of stars you could see overhead. In that setting, the waves were marked by a faint phosphorescent glow and the Milky Way was a brilliant streak down the middle of the sky.
Now, that was already awesome enough. That was seeing the rainbow without any worry about the pot of gold. But one night we were out there and we heard this odd snuffling sound. It didn’t quite sound human but it didn’t quite sound not human either.
We followed the sound until we came upon something shuddering on the sand in front of us. We still couldn’t tell what it was, and it was, frankly, a little scary. But we kept on approaching until the moonlight revealed it.
It was a sea turtle.
Female sea turtles crawl up onto the beach to lay their eggs. They dig out a nest with their flippers, lay their eggs, bury them and refill the nest so predators can’t find it. I’d known all this, but had never seen it even on film, and now here it was happening in front of me.
We backed away slowly once we realized what was happening, so that we wouldn’t disturb the turtle, but nearly 30 years later I still remember the moment. It was an encounter with the natural world that probably few people ever experience — the infinite sky above us, the trackless ocean before us, and one tiny snapshot of the eternal cycle of life played out on the sand.
It is that kind of moment that will steal your breath. That is the rainbow in brilliant, shimmering color.
That was, I admit, a rare kind of experience. To recreate it, you’d need an uninhabited stretch of beach, a cloudless sky, a good friend, a car and some really lucky timing with a sea turtle. And you would probably need to be 20.
But there are all kinds of such experience to be had, and they’re often very simple. Have you seen the firefly? Have you seen the lark?
Earlier I quoted Robert Heinlein who, speaking through one of his fictional characters, advises us to take big bites out of life. It’s good advice. You don’t get breathtaking, life-changing experiences when you only nibble around the edges.
But that doesn’t mean every experience has to be breathtaking and life-changing to be meaningful. It doesn’t mean you have to wait for the chances to take big bites before you do anything. Simply spending a few minutes on the porch in the evening watching the fireflies can plug you in to the rhythms of the natural world in a way you’d miss by staying in.
It’s a glimpse of the rainbow because even though it’s ordinary, something that happens predictably every evening during the right time of the year, it’s taking the time to consciously remind yourself that your own existence is only a part of the interdependent web of life.
Take big bites, yes. Those breathtaking, life-changing moments don’t come often, and when they do, we need to seize them. But don’t dismiss the smaller bites. We have the opportunity for the smaller moments many times every day. They are there to be seized.
Our protagonist in the song sings of “passing diamonds on the road” in his obsessive search for the pot of gold. Modern life often encourages us in this proclivity, to hurry by the shiny glint of diamonds, not noticing them, because our eyes are fixed on the possibility of a treasure at the end.
I would suggest that the diamonds might be small, subtle. Fleeting. They can be easy to overlook. But when we move through life a little more slowly, living with the intention to appreciate the rainbow, that’s when we begin to learn how to spot the diamonds in time to enjoy them.
People who lived long ago measured their lives by the agricultural cycle. The religions that flourished before the coming of Christianity based their calendar of religious festivals on agricultural events. The planting, the various harvest times, the peaks of summer and winter, these were all significant times of the year. In pagan thought, there’s little or no separation between what we’re conditioned to think of as sacred and secular. When your life is bound to the land like that, it all blends into one.
That kind of life forces attention to a fairly small window of time. You might plan ahead a few months, to the next planting or harvest, but otherwise your mind is on what’s happening that day. The gifts of each day are manifest and often simple – as Peter Mayer describes it, the colors that gleam, the lark, the firefly. Rather than trying to store up treasures on Earth – something that Jesus and many other spiritual teachers warn against – life is instead about trying to simply provide for the next few weeks.
It’s hard to recapture. Today’s pagan movements try to encourage their adherents to celebrate those seasonal observances, but most people today are not tied to the seasons like the people of old were. Back then, you ate what was in season or what you could store without a refrigerator. Today, if you want strawberries in January, you drive to the supermarket and there they are, grown and flown in from some equatorial region thousands of miles away.
But those seasonal rhythms, like watching the fireflies, are a reminder of our place within the web of life. The Earth turned on its axis and revolved around the sun for billions of years before we were here and will for billions more after we’re gone. This recognition that our own personal fortune is not all that important in the grand scheme of things is part of seeing the rainbow, I think, because it dethrones our egos. Maybe we need that reminder to then be able to appreciate the moments as they come.
You may have noticed a common theme in the hymns I selected for today’s service. We sang about the morning, and then about the turning of seasons. In a few minutes, we’ll close with a hymn about the coming of night.
These are the ways in which we mark the passage of time. The time of day. The time of year. They are all cycles. The hands of the clock eventually will come back to this exact time tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, just as it did yesterday and the day before. The turn of the year will bring us back to this day next year.
Wheels within wheels, and our lives move through them in a line from birth to death, to whatever might come after.
A time will come for each of us to reach the end of the journey we’ve been on. If we are lucky, we will have an opportunity to think back over the years, over the span of our lives. What will be there, locked away in memory?
Will you find you have truly lived? That you have cherished every moment of joy, and even moments of sorrow? Did you take big bites when you could? Did you see the firefly? Did you feel the life burning in your beating heart?
Have you seen the rainbow?