Symbols to Live By: An Interview with Thomas “Thom” Brown

Thom BrownThe 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.”

This video is a compilation of over 100 images of the tree outside his office during an entire year:
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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.

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  1. Vinny T
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Another stimulating post that provides excellent food for thought.Thank you, Samantha.My Cousin Sol Montoya, among others,was a shining beacon in my life and had a profound influence on it. I remember him as a brilliant college professor, one of the smartest individuals that I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. Visiting his home was an inspiration, filled with books in different foreign languages,and a haven for knowledge and stimulating conversation. He stood like a giant overwhelming everyone with his intelligence. He, more than anyone aside from my Mom taught me the value of intelligence and an education, and has been a constant guiding light in my life. My love for knowledge and intelligence has served as an example for my son who loves reading and learning things, especially in his chosen profession where he is flourishing. I’m so pleased that he attributes much of his success to my example and that I have become a guiding light in my son’s life the way my Cousin Sol was for me

    • Posted October 20, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      Wow! Isn’t it amazing how much a person’s home says about him? =) I could also imagine and feel what your cousin, Sol, was like just from your description of his knowledge-filled home! It sounds like he had a profound influence on you, which you are passing on. =) That’s what’s so beautiful about mentors! Thanks so much for sharing this, Vinny!

  2. Posted October 19, 2011 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    Shine the light. For me the key to Thom is his relationship to trees though. A tree is such a wonderful thing and some can survive with shallow roots and others have deep roots. Some flower and give us fruit. Some give us shade. But I never would have thought of Thom and lighthouses. Nice take – and my lighthouse – mother, father, husband, granddaughter and so on

    • Posted October 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      Same here, Roberta! I remember reading a poem about the strength and solitude of a tree and having it carry me through some tough times in life. There is just so much symbolism there!

  3. Posted October 19, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    Another wonderful and inspiring interview Samantha! When your guest, Thom shared his connection with the tree, it reminded me that I have lived in our current home for a little over 10 years. When I go out (which is almost everyday) I always notice this small treel that was planet outside our subdvision. Every day, every month and every year I have been watching it grow, turn colors throughout the seasons and just would always make me smile. Now I know that a tree can really have a lot of meaning!

    So thank you for sharing this Samantha … and by the way, I like his last name!

    • Posted October 20, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      Aww! =) You know, I think we all need a constant like that in our lives. =) Thanks for sharing that anecdote, Lynn. I’m going to search for my tree now too. =)

      Haha! I can see why you like his last name. =P

  4. Posted October 19, 2011 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    This is another terrific interview Samantha. Thom’s description of his connections with both trees but especially the lighthouse was very poetic and moving. It’s wonderful he recognizes the effect a teacher can have for some students. A light house is perfect metephor for this.
    Lovely to meet you Thom!

    • Posted October 20, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      I felt that way too, Bonnie — Thom is such a wise and poetic man! It was such an honor to interview him! =)

  5. Posted October 20, 2011 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    I grew up spending summers on a lake where the front window of our cottage looked directly across our small bay to a lighthouse. From anywhere on the lake at night or in a storm it could guide us back to the safety of our bay. The red light was comforting cutting through the blackness. Images are so powerful…thanks for the reminder.

    • Posted October 21, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

      That’s such a beautiful image of your childhood summers you paint, Tambre. =) I’ve never even seen a lighthouse up close before so your description and Thom’s mean a lot to me. =)

  6. Posted October 21, 2011 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Some people are just meant to be beacons or the rest of us. I’m a fan of Thom’s blog and the wisdom he imparts there. This interview just confirms that he is a shining light. Thanks, Sam!

    • Posted October 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      What a beautiful way to describe him, Adriene! =) He sure is a shining light for me too!

  7. Abe
    Posted October 21, 2011 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I am a firm believer that following good examples of others will help us avoid some of the pit falls we may have during our life. Nothing is more unsettling to me then to see someone choose the other path (carreer or life activity)when the right one was so clearly marked for them. I also believe that we should learn from our experiances but sometimes you only have one chance to get it right. I try my best to share all I know but often wonder if anyone is listening.

    • Posted October 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      You’re so right! That’s why it’s so important to have and recognize the lighthouses around us. =) Thank you for being a lighthouse for me, Abe! =)

  8. Posted October 21, 2011 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    If I was to be a lighthouse to others it would mean I’d have to stay up when it’s dark outside and I think I love sleep too much for that…
    Seriously cool interview though. Love the pic of the tree!

    • Posted October 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      Haha! =) I guess some of us just aren’t cut out for the role. Hadn’t considered the loss of sleep factor. Hehe! =P

  9. Posted October 22, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    A beautiful post. We all need a lighthouse from time to time. Thom’s life journey could have made him bitter, but he chose to become more human and help others. Thanks for another great interview!

  10. Posted January 28, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    An excellent profile of an outstanding person who is/has been a beacon to many in his time. Love the way you use the lighthouse, which is of personal symbolic value to Thom, as a metaphor to illustrate this. Interesting story how the lighthouse helped him overcome daunting physical problems to have a career as a psychology professor.

    • Posted February 1, 2012 at 2:06 am | Permalink

      Well said, Pennie! Thom’s personal symbol is something I feel we can all take to heart and implement in our own lives as well!

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