Parson to Person:  “Believing in Fireflies” 3/25/20

Because we are “sheltering in place” here in Wisconsin (and thus not meeting in person at UCN), we are all probably reading more than usual. Maybe reflecting a little more too. Someone suggested to me that maybe I could write my once-a-month “Parson to Person” message more frequently, and include some of the subjects I am reflecting on. (I get to reflect; you get to read!)  I thought I’d give it a try. So here’s my first “sheltering-in-place”  installment–a reflection on fireflies. I hope it speaks to you, or at least makes you chuckle–and, if not that, at least gives you an insight into some of the little things that sometimes make me feel awe.

I know the summer is months away, but one of the things I look forward to, whenever summer comes around, is fireflies. (They are one of the reasons I like living in the Midwest rather than the West Coast. The other three are thunderstorms, snow, and colored leaves in Fall.) You see, there were no fireflies where I grew up. (I guess the San Francisco area never got hot or humid enough to support creatures like these.) As a result, I never really “believed” in fireflies. 

Oh, I knew there was an insect with that name, and I had seen pictures of them in cartoons and comic strips (one where a character uses a jar of fireflies as a flashlight, for example).  I had also heard stories of the light they emit in the dark, but I assumed that merely meant they had a bright, fluorescent-type color on them–or, at best, a glow-in-the-dark coating that would work only if a light was shined on it first. The idea of an animal producing electric light was simply not in the realm of possibility, as far as I was concerned.

You can imagine my surprise when I saw one for the first time, during my first summer in the Midwest (in 1968). “Oh, my God, they really do light up!” I thought. I was sure my family in California would never believe me if I just told them about these creatures, so I caught one in a jar and took it with me on the plane home. Unfortunately, it never lit up again, and I finally had to let it go in the backyard, disappointed that my brothers and sisters never got to witness what I had seen.

(Incidentally, I once came across a story about boy scouts from a big city, who had never had much experience in the great outdoors. They were out camping in the country and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. At first they hid under their sleeping bags to keep from getting hit. Then one of them saw fireflies in the distance and, not knowing what they were, said to the others: “We might as well give up, fellas. They’re coming after us with flashlights now!”)

Those of you who grew up with fireflies may not realize how miraculous they might seem to someone like me who had never seen them before. Zen Buddhists have an interesting concept for this called “Beginner’s Mind.” Basically, the idea is that most of us don’t experience the world directly–we filter it through our assumptions and biases about what it has to offer. To have Beginner’s Mind is to see things as if for the first time, without preconceptions. For me, the first time I saw fireflies was such an experience. These little lightning bugs were so beautiful and magical–precisely because they defied all my presuppositions!

I sometimes wonder how many other things in my life might feel this way, if I were willing to see them as if for the first time: A butterfly in my front yard. An “ordinary” sunset. A group of ants carrying bits of fast-food debris from a dropped wrapper to their ant hill. A single wave on Lake Michigan. Maybe even someone I have found annoying in the past, who might seem different if I saw them without the lens of past history.

I suspect you have had your own “firefly experiences”–times when you saw something you had looked at before, but had never actually seen; times when you found light or beauty in places you never expected to see it. I can only hope that you and I will have many more experiences of this kind. But remember: The ability to see such magic…depends less on the things and people outside us…than on our own willingness to look with the mind of a beginner (“unless you become as little children…”).

So, with that, let me leave you with this benediction:  

Fireflies be with you!  (As well as, of course…)

peace and unrest,

     tony