21 March 2017

I think I’ve become obsessed with lighthouses.

Not for their rugged beauty (though check out these photos!), or even their peaceful timelessness. What I can’t get out of my head is how they act as an uncanny metaphor for a common phenomenon in community action. 

Old Scituate Lighthouse (Built In 1810), Massachusetts, USA. Image credits: Francisco Marty.

A while ago I was having a conversation with a woman I had never met before, at one of our Community Camps down at the Eden Project (find out more about those amazing experiences here), all about loneliness of lighthouses. They stand, she said, emitting all this light, but not being sure if anyone has seen it. They can save lives, but might never know it. Without feedback it is impossible to see the impact of where its light has reached, or which boats it has set back on course.

This turned into a conversation about how the very same thing can happen with people. Some of us give off a light which can have significant impacts on others, but if we are not told then we can assume that our efforts have been in vain. Especially with regard to loneliness, we can reach out to others and get nothing back, but it does not mean that we have not had an impact.

A smile and a nod in the street may be met with stony indifference, but that might be because it’s the first human contact that person has had all day, or perhaps longer. The impact of these small acts of kindness can take a while to sink in, but they are no less powerful for it. The temptation, certainly for me, is to assume that a lack of a reaction equals a lack of impact, but it’s important to remember that this is often far from true.

But it happens all the time. And it can really get us down. If we don’t get as many people to our event as we wanted, or if there’s no response to a compliment or gift, or even if someone simply fails to acknowledge a door held open for them. We know, rationally, that there could be a thousand reasons. Who knows what’s going on in someone else’s mind? But it’s easy to assume the worst.

It is important, then, that when others have a positive effect on us we tell them, and encourage them to do the same. It’s not generally within our social norms to speak out when we’ve been touched by someone’s actions, but I think it’s firmly within our human nature. Sometimes we just need permission. 

There’s a lovely quotation from M.L. Steadman: “The dip of the light meant that the island itself was always left in darkness. A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it.” What this says to me is that we all have a responsibility to spot lighthouses, and shine our light on them. Telling someone how much you appreciate what they have done, and seeing their happiness as a result, is an incredible power we all have at our fingertips every single day. 

So no matter how isolating reaching out can sometimes be, don’t despair! Remember that you are a lighthouse, and that the more you recognise and reach out to other lighthouses, the more likely others are to recognise you, even if it takes a little time.

- Peter Lefort
Country Manager, England
Eden Project Communities

The dip of the light meant that the island itself was always left in darkness. A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it.