Epiphanies

Today’s post comes to us from Port Huron Steve.

I once considered writing a book of personal memoir. The title was going to be Epiphanies. Not everyone is familiar with that word, which comes to us from the ancient Greeks. Epiphanies are those moments of sudden understanding in which a nagging problem is solved or a blazing new perception reveals itself. A less fancy definition would be “aha moments.” The word has special relevance to Christians, referring to the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. My favorite example of epiphany in popular culture is that moment in The Miracle Worker when Anne Sullivan pumps water over the hands of little Helen Keller, teaching her how language is the key that will reveal the world to her.

For me, epiphanies are special, even magic. Of course, we all learn lessons as we experience our lives. Usually enlightenment appears after a slow, unremarkable, evolutionary process. Epiphanies, by contrast, surprise and shock us. Routine mental growth is like lighting a candle in the dark; epiphanies are more like skyrockets that explode to fill the skies with color and noise.

Epiphanies I experienced as a child are hard to date with precision. When I was a toddler—somewhere between three and five—my grandfather took me out for a treat. He bought us drumsticks, those ice cream novelties with wafer cones. Up until that moment delightful things seemed to appear and disappear randomly. But when Grandpa Clarence bought those drumsticks I realized that these and other treats existed all the time. They were part of the world. If you had this thing called money, you could exchange it for a drumstick. The world was more orderly and benign than I had understood before that moment.

I experienced an epiphany in third grade that I often remember. Our classroom had an American flag (just 48 stars back then). Large portraits of George Washington and Abe Lincoln hung on the walls. Our desks were bolted in place facing the teacher’s desk, which was mounted on a raised deck to allow her to look down on the little humans in her charge. Our teacher, Miss Maybe, called on a kid named Andy to deliver a report. Sitting in my desk on the right hand side of the classroom, halfway back, I grinned with relief. The voice in my head said, “Hey, that’s Andy up there, not you! He has to give a report and you do not. He’s Andy. You’re Steve. You aren’t Andy, and you don’t have to give a report!” I’ve always wondered if most people have a particular blazing moment when they realized they are a unique consciousness, not part of a larger group.

Not all epiphanies are so fun to remember. In the first year of my marriage, my erstwife and I spent a winter month housesitting the home of Arthur Naftalin, then the mayor of Minneapolis. On a sub-zero February afternoon my parents drove all the way in from their Orono home to visit us. After a delightful meal they left, walking down the steep driveway to where they had left their car parked on the street. I stood at a living room picture window to watch. When they turned up the sidewalk, my mother and father spotted me. As if they had rehearsed this move for weeks, they turned, smiled radiantly, raised their hands and waved goodbye, each one mirroring exactly the expression and movements of the other. Tears shot out of my eyes, and I staggered back into the privacy of the living room so my parents wouldn’t see me crying. Something about the moment—the crazy synchronicity of their goodbye waves—made me realize these two people I loved so much would someday exit my life forever. Of course, I had always known my parents would likely precede me in death. That abstract, dry fact became a moment of scorching awareness when they waved goodbye that afternoon.

Do you experience epiphanies? Can you share examples?

41 thoughts on “Epiphanies”

  1. My paternal grandfather died before I was born and when I was growing up, my grandmother lived with a man named Ray. No one ever suggested that he was a grandfather substitute and all of us grandchildren simply called him Ray. He always had a bedroom of his own (I was fascinated by the shoe trees that he had for all his dress shoes) and as things are for children, it was just a fact of life that they lived together, not a curiousity.

    When I was a sophomore in high school, my mother informed me that Grandma and Ray had gotten married. It was like my life was flashing before my eyes and I suddenly saw every scene of my childhood with Grandma and Ray differently and I was shocked, not that they had been living together unmarried but at that fact that I hadn’t realized they weren’t just friends all those years. It wasn’t that I was naïve but that I hadn’t even given it enough thought to apply naivety to it.

    Initially this was not an epiphany that made me happy. I was fine that they were married but it made me feel like I didn’t know anything about all those folks who populated my life. Eventually though this realization morphed into a desire to know my grandparents and parents and others in my life as individuals, as people in their own right and not just as an extension of me.

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  2. I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom when I was a very small child, maybe three or four years old. I was having a conversation in my head with “Bad girl”, who reigned in my imagination as someone who did naghty things or else wanted to do naughty things. It suddenly struck me that Bad girl was part of me. It wasn’t that I defined myself as a bad child, or that people thought I was bad. It was just that I suddenly saw myself in my entirety, as if I saw myself as me, a whole person for the first time, a person with good and not so good qualities. It was very strange.

    Lawrnce Durrell ends one of his books with the sentence “I felt as if the universe had given me a nudge”. I think that sums up an epiphany.

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  3. Wow, to all the stories already. I was 21 and had a rare evening home alone at the apartment I shared with three other girls that first summer in San Francisco. I remember I was listening to the Beatles’ White Album, looking out the window to the back yard and other apartment buildings, when I had this sudden hit – I am an individual, unlike any other of the myriad of individuals around me. My tastes and preferences and traits and foibles and skills…are in different combination than anyone else’s. As mentioned above, I had known this on one level, but this realization went deeper, was profound.

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  4. Halloween for our daughter when she was 5 was an epiphany of sorts that life can suck at times. She had the chicken pox and insisted on going out trick or treating. She got as far as the end of the block when she collapsed in a heap, and was taken home. As I was giving her an oatmeal bath, she asked me if Santa Claus was real, and begged me to tell the truth. I said “no”. She asked about the Eastef Bunny. I said he wasn’t real, either. Later, in the middle of the night as daughter slept on the sofa, our anxiety-biter fox terrier savagely attacked our Welsh Terrier right there in the the living room in front of daughter. There was blood every where and we had to take the Welshy to the vet for stitches.

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  5. Beautifully written blog, Steve — thank you. I can’t recall any large epiphanies at the moment, just some smaller epiphanies. When I was quite young and riding in the car with my parents and family on the way to somewhere — it occurred that every other car on the road was full of occupants. Each occupant had their own life, thoughts, ideas, friends, family and connections that I didn’t have a clue about. I remember seeing each car and trying to imagine all the people and their separate lives that each vehicle represented. It was mind-boggling — sort of like looking at all the stars in the sky and trying to wrap your brain around the magnitude of everything.

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  6. I remember finding myself at a crossroads when I was about ten or twelve.
    My mother was Catholic, so I was raised with the expectation that I would be Catholic too. I never embraced Catholicism in the sense that it gave me comfort or formed part of my self identity but it was nevertheless a fact and there didn’t seem To be any alternative. Catholicism wasn’t just what you did on Sunday, it was a cosmology and a worldview. Since I went to public school, I had to go on Saturdays to catechism class where we were indoctrinated via rote memorization of the Baltimore catechism by the nuns, who were confidently assertive in their credulous simplicity. One of the tenets of this indoctrination was that Catholics are superior to those of all other persuasions and that we really ought to avoid exposure to them whenever possible. That, and an increasing number of other theological assertions seemed to me unreasonable and untrue.

    My crossroads were when I realized that if I put the “teachings” of the church above my own reason, I would be relinquishing my personal judgement. On the other hand, if I chose to trust my reason, that would be the isolating choice but it would be there for me whenever I needed it. From that point, the church had no power or authority for me.

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    1. I would have been amazed if you said you never had such an epiphany. You trust your reason at least as much as any person I’ve met. I fumbled through several clumsy and incomplete moments of personal candor before I got to the same place in my freshman year of college. I’m a slower learner!

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    1. I haven’t watched in a while, but if you like her show now, you should have seen it in its early days. There was a writer’s strike a few years after the show started up, and in the days before the strike it was pretty amazing. During the strike it suffered greatly, and it fell back on some pretty lame games & such. When the writers returned, it was never really the same again.

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  7. I’m not sure my memory is as clear as the rest of you but I do recall changing a flat tire on the car while headed to prom (I think; seems like I was in a silver tux (it *was* 1982)) and I remember thinking “you don’t need to get all pissed off about this. It’s an ‘adventure!’, not the end of the world. And it was a junk car and I was always having flat tires. i could change it in about 3 minutes.

    I’m waiting for daughter to have some epiphanies. Will she ever really hurry when I say ‘Hurry up!’? Will she ever realize “Sorry” means you should change your behavior and it’s not just a word that seems to pacify those around you?

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  8. Whatever epiphanies I have had, have come in drips and drabs; small realizations that may have seemed profound at the time, but certainly nothing like “skyrockets that explode to fill the skies with color and noise.” Nice as that metaphor is, for me, the “aha moment,” or the cartoon “light bulb” is a lot more descriptive of my experience.

    The one moment that may actually qualify as an epiphany, as Steve describes it, is the moment I realized that my theory, that if you rode your bicycle down a steep hill at a high speed, you didn’t need to turn the handlebars to make a turn at the bottom, was false. When I reached the bottom of that hill, and was catapulted across a wide ditch and landed spread eagle, impaled on a thorny hedge, the air was, indeed, filled with color and noise. I knew in that instant that I should have turned those handlebars, but frankly, I was in too much pain to appreciate my newfound knowledge. I remember the details of this incident vividly; must have been five or six years old at the time, and I know have told this story here before as well.

    Perhaps that’s the tragedy of my life: whatever epiphanies I’ve had have occurred because I had to learn through painful experience that beliefs I held were wrong?

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      1. Akin to the landscape of the Bohemian Alps in Nebraska. Imagine the experiences I might have had had I grown up in the Alps in Switzerland. I might never have lived to tell about it.

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    1. PJ It can’t be “a tragedy” that you have learned about life in small lessons drawn from unpleasant experiences. That’s surely a valid way of learning. When I wondered about whether others experienced epiphanies, this was one of the questions I had. Your approach is, broadly speaking, less dramatic than mine. But surely that is at least as valid as any other way of processing life’s lessons. We aren’t talking just about observations of life but also that mental Wow!!! reaction at a new way of seeing things. Epiphanies sometimes overwhelm me. I’d never argue that is “a good thing.”

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      1. As we both discovered quite some time ago, Steve, you and I see and learn from life quite differently. As you point out, one isn’t necessarily better than the other. While I’d not agree that I’ve learned a preponderance of small lessons from unpleasant experiences, it s in fact how I have learned some valuable life lessons. As a lot of videos on YouTube confirm, a lot of life-lessons are learned by people doing really stupid things.

        I was amused by your description of epiphanies in such dramatic terms, and was having a little fun poking fun at it. I’m hoping that tim and CB weigh in on this topic; they usually have fabulous stories to tell.

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    2. I had a very similar realization at about the same age, PJ. If you are going down a steep hill on your bicycle in your bare feet, don’t stick your foot down to try to stop yourself.

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      1. Knowing what I know now, VS, I realize that going at the speed I was going, even if I had turned the handlebars, I would have still have wiped out. Instead of being impaled on a thorny hedge i would most likely have had severe scrapes from the asphalt. You just can’t win!

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  9. I’ve known for years that my wife can hold a grudge. I tend to get mad and then get over it. But I realized just this morning that sometimes I “fester”. Sometimes I don’t get mad until the next day. Then i’m grumpy for a day about whatever. And then I’m mostly over it… Mostly.

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    1. One of my epiphanies featured a time I got incredibly grumpy. Grumpiness doesn’t usually do anything positive for the grump, and it really can be unpleasant for the grump’s family and loved ones. My horrible mood was brought on by a spectacularly frustrating family vacation. It’s a long story.

      In the end, I took a long look at how ugly my mood had been. That self pity had been all my fault, and my expression of it was unfair to those near me. The good part of all this is that I was so disgusted with myself that I figured out what happened. I think it’s fair to say I haven’t done that again. Sometimes we learn.

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  10. Can an epiphany be a wordless realization? I think the epiphanies I’ve had have been when a particular outdoor scene (a small or large scene) has struck me hard with its beauty. I can’t predict when or where this will be, it might be a single tree on a city street in autumn or it could be a view of Lake Superior. A year ago in October, when I went to Banning State Park, it seemed like my entire time there was one epiphany of beauty after another. It was a magical day.

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  11. No epiphany today but certainly an interesting 12 hours. A co-worker’s cell phone exploded this morning; she’s fine, but it burnt down the building that I work in. Okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It didn’t burn the building down but some of it’s severely burnt and we aren’t going to be back in it for at least a month. The really lucky part was that this happened this morning before there were too many people in the building. Nobody got hurt.

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      1. I didn’t even get a whole day off. At noon they called us at home to have us come back. They’re putting us over in the building that we just moved out of a few months ago. But it’s a mishmash of chairs and office equipment right now and who knows when or if we’ll be able to get our files.

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  12. Steve – the last part of you story makes me weep. I recall them walking down the hall after visiting me in the hospital with Mom limping from arthritis and Dad turning 70 that day. This image is burned into my brain. Parents are the ones who should need visiting, not their children.

    I’ve also thought once in a while, about how having 20 people in my direct family members who are driving thousands of miles and how one of them will have a car accident. How could one of them not?

    My recent epiphany was just last Friday night when I knew that I couldn’t make it home from Steve’s, and what this would mean to my own mobility. Actually, accepting anything related to aging is an ongoing epiphany to me.

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  13. I went through a religious phase when I was in my teens. I was enthralled with an evangelical group that believed in speaking in tongues. I was fascinated with people that spoke in tongues, and wanted that to happen to me. It seemed as though if i spoke in tongues, it would be incontrovertible proof that God was real.

    Eventually it occurred to me that religion is not for people who need incontrovertible proof. I’ve been agnostic since then.

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