optics and images

Molokai Double Rainbow

The last week has had an intensity about it, whether viewed through the lens of home, work or politics. It has been one of those weeks where life seems generally out of order and more distressing than reassuring. Parents of a child born after a long struggle with infertility must hear that their little one has autism. I try to comfort them as they weep. Adolescents who have never experienced the feeling of being wanted, ask for medication to help them feel less anxious. Loved ones feel misunderstood by each other, labeled and stereotyped instead of heard and treasured. And social media serves up a constant barrage of outrage aimed at whoever stands across the aisle. It’s demoralizing.

That word, demoralizing, means to lose hope or confidence. Its origin is tied to the French Revolution, where it was meant as a corruption of morals. A demoralizer was one who undid someone’s morals. Weeks like this past one can make me lose confidence in a good and beautiful universe, a place where morals matter for human flourishing. 

Fortunately, the science of optics helped me see things in a more positive light. As I thought about the child with autism, the turbulent adolescent who others fear, the family member who struggles against stereotypes and my own difficulty in neatly fitting in to this complex world, I considered refraction. Well, not immediately.

It started with feeling the ache of how we all want to be understood for who we are at our core—our particular selves, not some version of a broadly defined identity. I don’t want to be stereotyped as white American cis-gender woman. Or as any kind of Christian other than an earnest one. I’ve been sorted and categorized so often, many times by well-meaning folks. My professional degrees, marital status, birth date, Zodiac sign, credit rating, enneagram number, and Myers-Briggs letters have all been requested in the past ten days. When I’m asked what I do for a living, I now know to start with, “Well, I’m the only person with this particular set of jobs, so it won’t fit neatly into a category.” Otherwise, it’s just confusing.

So how do we allow people to be particular while also honoring the universal nature of what it means to be human? How do we hold as precious the inherent dignity of all and still show tolerance and affection for individual differences, for those things that may be shaped by culture, genetics, personality or mystery? I’ve seen intolerance on the left and the right—it is generously spread around. Instead of focusing our vision on what we fear, find unfamiliar, or dislike in others, what if we looked for a flash of beauty in that different way of being in the world? 

So, refraction. It’s a property of light. Light is a universal idea, a pocket of energy, both wave and particle in character. Light reveals, dawns, warms, and banishes darkness. We celebrate the return of the seasonal light, the wonder of star light and the mystery of God as light from light. We ask each other and ourselves to be points of light, to be beacons of hope as we try to be like that Light from Light.

If God is light, then we share that light as divine image bearers. But I don’t think that means we are just a mirror image of a sunbeam. Light bends and changes as it enters the material world—it is refracted. That’s why we see colors in raindrops, stunning sunsets in cloudy skies, rainbows in the mist. Science teachers show us refraction by putting pencils into a beaker of water—suddenly the pencil looks bent. Light takes on an individual shape as it responds to qualities of the matter it encounters. 

Maybe we are all bent images of God’s light. We all have our own refracted beams, different aspects of a prism. None are, by themselves, all the light there is. But all have a refraction of it, and all contribute to the infinite truth of what it means to be light. As refractions of light, we can be known as both universal and particular, without either identity overpowering the other. We still cling to what is true about light—there is no darkness in it—but we give space for its expression in its personal setting. We don’t corrupt our moral goods, but we do invite new ways of seeing them be fulfilled.

I’m wondering how best to see that bent light in others, particularly in those I readily stereotype or color negatively. I’m reminded that in optics, the negative of an image is when its light areas are made to be dark. Hmmm. Lots to consider and still wonder about.

Published by jenniemclaurin

I'm a wonderer and a wanderer who likes to think about the intersections of science, faith, culture and the natural world. Hiking, family, medicine, travel and a collection of writers and mystics inspire me. I make my living in the land of public health, as a pediatrician. I live my life in the Pacific Northwest.

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