Thoughts by the Sea

By Trevor Barton 6-17-2015
Image via idreamphoto/
Image via idreamphoto/

Today I was standing at the edge of the sea, looking at the horizon where the light blue of the sky meets the dark blue of the water.

"I remember," I thought, "when I was a boy and I was standing in this place and looking at this spot and wondering what it would be like to be able to talk to a blue whale."

I wonder now ... what would it be like to be able to talk to a blue whale?

Two things I know about blue whales: one, their hearts are as big as a Volkswagen Beetle. And two, their ears are the size of the points of pencils — yet they sing to each other and hear each other’s songs over many, many miles.

Have you heard of the children's book Amos and Boris, by William Steig? It is a beautiful story about an unlikely friendship between a mouse named Amos and a whale named Boris. So much of life for us is learning what it means to be human, and this story helps us think about that vocation — about how we can build community, about how the seemingly smallest and least important parts of ourselves make the biggest and most important differences in the world around us, about how the seemingly smallest and least important people around us are the ones who most help the world.

Read it and reflect on it, please, and ask yourself along with me: "What would you ask of blue whales, if you could talk to them?"

One question I would ask a blue whale, if I could summon it from the depths of the ocean, would be, "Is it your giant heart that makes your kind the most peaceful and intelligent creatures on Earth?"

I often wonder about the link between the heart and kindness and intelligence. "Cogit ergo sum (I think therefore I am)," wrote René Descartes, and we live in a time where the sum of all of life is the mind, the value of all of life is the ability to be right and to be smarter than anyone else.

But what of "sentimus ergo sumus (we feel therefore we are)?” Is the sum of all of life really empathy, the practice of placing ourselves in the shoes of fellow human beings and walking around in those shoes until we can feel life as they feel it?

"If we value the growth of our hearts most of all, could we be more like you?," I would ask my giant, gentle friend.

Another question I would ask would be, "Is it the way you sing your song that helps you be heard, or is it the way you listen that helps you understand, even over unfathomable distances?"

I also often wonder about the link between talking and listening, about being understood and understanding. "Listening is an act of love," teaches David Isay within his StoryCorps project, yet we live in a time that values talking most of all, that values the number and volume of words over all things.

But what of hearing over the long distances — and how unfathomable those distances seem to be! — of race or sexual orientation or class or country or political persuasion or educational level or culture? Is the most important value really listening, the practice of using the ears of our hearts, until we can understand others for what they are trying to say and for who they are?

"If we value listening most of all, could we be more like you?," I would ask my giant, humble friend.

Today, I was standing at the edge of the sea, feeling the mist on my face, tasting the salt on my lips, smelling the world as Hemingway wrote it in The Old Man and the Sea, hearing the breaking of the waves, seeing a blue whale swimming toward me, a smile and an inquisitive look on its face, asking, "What are your questions my little friend?"

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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