It’s a fact! A sudden surprising encounter or insight can radically change the direction of a person’s life.
Samantha Power, was one of the most influential authors and government officials in the Obama Administration. In her wonderful recent book ‘The Education of an Idealist’ (William Collins 2019) she tells of a blinding flash that changed the direction of her life. In 1989, after completing her studies at Yale, she was living in Atlanta, where she was about to commence her chosen career of sports journalism. In a facility with many TV screens, she was watching a Red Sox baseball game and her task was to record the exact time of every notable incident on the field and in the stands. On other screens in this facility, unedited live feeds were coming from various news sources around the world.
On one screen, she noticed there were live images from Tiananmen Square, Beijing. A CBS camera man was arguing with Chinese authorities about his right to film in the Square. That week there were clips of what the news media called the ‘Tank Man’ - a man carrying two plastic shopping bags standing in front of a column of tanks. Video footage that wasn’t generally screened showed the man climbing onto the tank and talking with the driver.
The unknown man’s bravery and subsequent Tiananmen Square news stories caused Samantha to think, “What am I doing with my life?’ The idea of spending her life writing sports stories now seemed insubstantial beside the big issues to which she had been awakened. She changed her career path to journalism in the world’s most difficult and dangerous places.
I have had a few of those Eureka moments.
Many years ago, when I was living in Melbourne and lecturing on religious subjects, I had no idea what was New Zealand’s actual religion.
Walking through Auckland airport on my first visit, I was immediately aware of a tense atmosphere. People were glued to the large TV screens around the facility. There was a sense of impending doom. I assumed that a disaster had occurred or was about to occur. I asked a uniformed airport staff member why people were so worried. He told me, “The All Blacks are playing the Wallabies and they are losing.” The man explained to me that it was a rugby game. In Melbourne, as far as I knew, no one played rugby. However, after this experience, it didn’t take long for the truth to dawn on me - Rugby was New Zealand’s national religion.
My life’s work and central interest was religion. One denomination of the Christian religion gave me meaning and purpose. Its’ theology became the prism through which I viewed the world. I believed that the most hopeful thing for the peoples of the world would be if everyone could be persuaded to see life through the prism of my religion.
A chance encounter with John changed that. I heard him speak at a public forum. I thought he was going to speak about how nations could move to find world peace. In fact, he brought the issue down to a personal level. He spoke about the need for people to be more accepting of others, especially others whose cultures and world views were different to our own. On a personal level, he asserted that no one had the whole truth and that understanding and harmony could only be found by respectfully listening to each other.
In those years, through my religion, I had come to the same opinion.
Later I met with John privately. I learned that he didn’t just talk about these sublime concepts. He put them into practice in working with prisoners and addicts. I asked him how he arrived at his views; clearly my religion was not the source of his insight. I asked him was he Buddhist. No. Did he follow some middle eastern or Chinese mystic? No. Was yoga or some new age concepts his source? No. He told me that he arrived at this insights by listening to the silence. He would sit comfortably and still his mind, and these concepts I so admired would come to him. I think he was saying the universe spoke to him.
This was a shock to me. I had thought religion was the only way you could access these sublime thoughts. He had heard them in silence. I would never again say that my religion or any religion was the only path through which concepts and actions directed people towards peace in the world, in the community, in families, could come. These truths are out there. There were many paths and mine was only one of them. For me it was a bright flash of understanding.