“The best use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts life.” — William James
Thomas “Thom” Brown is a man of symbols and through them, he expresses life lessons. One symbol that has been especially important to him is the tree. There is one that sits near his office window and he takes a picture of it almost every day. “A tree is well-rooted against all manner of storm, as a symbol of the constancy of life,” Thom explains. “And its persistent cycle of seasonal variation reminds me of the continuity of life.”
Another Recurring Symbol
But to Thom, a more prominent symbol has been the lighthouse that shines through in his life and career. “I grew up not far from two lighthouses and visited them often as I grew up, especially the older one, which was open and climbable,” Thom remembers. “It was a good place to find a bit of solitude, and lighthouses quickly became important to me.” Throughout his life, Thom has visited and photographed dozens of lighthouses around the world, filling his office wall with framed images and his shelf with statuettes of them. “Friends mail me postcards of lighthouses they’ve seen and give me stamps, books, and all manner of knickknack related to lighthouses,” he recounts. “I’ve even given public lectures on lighthouses.”
His favorite is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse that shines 200 feet above sea level. “I have a preference for the large ‘landfall’ lights, especially those of the east coast,” Thom says. “The earth is curved, and the taller the lighthouse, the further out to sea you can be and still see it — important if you’re about to bump into North America (make ‘landfall’) or sail among the dangerous shoals which extend about ten miles into the Atlantic from Cape Hatteras.” From the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest light in the US, the light can easily be seen even 25 miles out to sea.
Lighthouses in Thom’s Life
What does the lighthouse symbolize for Thom and what can it mean for us?
“There it stands, alone and resolute, as a beacon of help for souls in perilous circumstance. Isn’t that what we all want when we’re feeling lost or in danger or searching for salvation — something or someone to show us the way, to remind us that there are places and spaces of security waiting for us? I respect its ability to weather all manner of storm, and I like that its height draws our vision upward into the skies, another reminder to hold our head up in spite of unpleasant times that may try to pull it down.”
He speaks from personal experience as a septicemia, heart attack, and cancer survivor who has had various close brushes with death. Radiation therapy took the use of and sensation in his left hand and arm, his heart pumps with only a third of the normal effort, and only half of his diaphragm works, yet Thom hardly considers himself disabled. Instead, this Hard Rock Café pin collector, astronomy buff, and word lover lives life to the fullest with reflectiveness, passion, and gratitude.
Lighthouses in Thom’s Career
As a psychology professor, laboratory scientist, and former college dean, Thom is also a lighthouse — “at least for those who need one,” he makes sure to add. Recently, a student from 35 years ago got in touch with him. “I remember this student very well. He was intelligent enough to have been self-educating, but he needed a lighthouse,” Thom remembers. “I’m glad I was there.” The alumnus wrote:
“I am honest when I say that I have a lot of great things to be thankful for in my life…[and]…you are without a doubt one of them. You had a profound impact on me and who I am (probably more than you will ever know). So just multiply that by the number of students you’ve had and friends you’ve known over the years since. Even if you only touched 1% of them [as] you did me, that’s an AMAZING number of people. That’s an amazing number of very lucky people.”
The influence Thom has had on students’ lives parallels influential professors in his own life. “When I was a student, there were a few special professors who were my lighthouses,” Thom reminisces. “So when I look around my office at those varied images of lighthouses, I am looking at reminders of who I have always wanted to be as a professor.” And just as those professors left a lasting impression on Thom, so too will Thom’s teachings endure in his students and the many lives that he touches.
Find Thom at his blog, To Gyre and Gambol, a repository of knowledge. Curious about what his blog’s title means? You can bet that it has to do with symbolism — read more about it in his post on a sundial in his backyard.
How have others been a lighthouse for you? How have you been a lighthouse for others? Tell us in the comments below!
All photos in this post are copyrighted to Thomas G. Brown, 2011.