The importance of rainbows

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Sometimes there’s a theme that just begs you to write about it. You ponder it, you scribble down a few thoughts, you procrastinate — but it just keeps following you. That’s how it’s been these past few weeks with rainbows. They arrive surreptitiously, by night in my inbox. They appear in the scatter of the spray from a drainpipe. They pop up at the ends of random links, cheerily persistent: “Hi, remember me? I’m that rainbow you were going to write about!” These rainbows act like they have important business.

And so they do. The other night I received a note from a reader named Lauren, with a story that both broke my heart and touched it deeply. Lauren wrote:

…I like to look at how others have used rainbows to brighten their world. I painted a rainbow chrysanthemum on the coffin of my baby boy when I buried him in July this year. Somehow, the colours have inspired me to keep going despite the tragedy that has divided our family.

I must say, first, that there can be nothing so horrible for a family as the loss of a child. Just reading Lauren’s few words filled me with empathy and sorrow. But Lauren’s story is not just about pain. It’s also about an act of beauty that is an expression of fierce love, and positivity that looks an awful lot like hope.

A rainbow is no compensation for the losses in our lives. Filmy and weightless, a rainbow replaces nothing, certainly not a beloved child. But strangely, the rainbow’s kind of joy is often the most able to reach us in those dark moments. Wordless, visceral, instantaneous: it has a direct line to our unconscious. We may feel incapable of laughing in a tragic moment, we may be ashamed of our impulses towards play, but we don’t begrudge ourselves a feeling of wonder at the sight of beauty. Rainbows, light, color, music — these are the things that break through to our dark places and lift us up. They make small spaces of lightness in a heavy heart, spaces for hope to take root. And it’s amazing (isn’t it?) that this kind of hope can be ignited just by color, by something so many people dismiss as “just decoration.” The surfaces of things have a deep kind of power.

In the fourteenth century, the German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote that there was a place within the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch. John O’Donohue, writer and philosopher, interpreted this to mean “that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded.” This place, I think, is our childlike heart, our awed and hopeful heart that dares to believe that life is worth living even in the midst of terrible pain. In depths of sadness, this place can seem inaccessible. It can feel as if it doesn’t even exist, that joy has been wrung out of our lives by struggle. In those moments, when we feel we cannot even find ourselves, it is good to remember that the way in, the way back, is beautifully simple.

So the rainbows were right to pursue me — their message is an important one. Beauty matters, especially in times of pain. If you know someone going through a difficult time, perhaps there is something beautiful you can do for them that will provide a spark of hope. And if it’s your difficult time, trust your own impulses towards beauty. Be kind to yourself. Take a walk somewhere open and wild, play music, or look at art. Seek out rainbows, or make your own.

I’m inspired by Lauren’s example, and feel privileged that she reached out to share her story. She continues to look forward, not forgetting her son Elijah (whose middle name is Rainbow) but remembering with a joyful mindset:

Elijah’s unfuneral in the park was a special day with rainbow flares coming up on the lens and rainbow face-painting. Now, two months after his death, I have yet to see a real rainbow. When I do, it will be special. In the meantime, I make my own rainbows and plan to decorate our new housebus with a rainbow of colour.

Image and story shared with openness and generosity by Lauren Fisher. On her site, you can learn more about her story, and the things she does to bring joy into her life and lives of her girls.

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4 Comments

  1. All praise to Meister Eckhart, Diane Ackerman and yourself who write such inspiring words about the soul. And praise to Lauren whose story does inspire and wound.

    A wonderful column. Joyful and painful. Thank you.

  2. having a love affair with rainbows myself. your post bought tears. Beautiful and sad. As a mother, I feel empathy. Loving your blog!

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