The Lighthouse Effect: How Ordinary People Can Have an Extraordinary Impact in the World
Steve Pemberton 2021
“I feel that we’re all lighthouses, and my job is to shine my light as brightly as I can to the darkness.” – Jim Carrey
“To be a lighthouse, you must be strong enough to resist every kind of storm, to every kind of loneliness and you must have a powerful light inside you!” – Mehmet Murat Ildan
Why are lighthouses such powerful symbols to so many? I've visited a few of them myself and found them interesting but not that important unless you are a ship not wanting to run aground. But still there is a fascination with lighthouses- people visit them all over the world, and there is a US Lighthouse Society that advocates for the preservation and restoration of lighthouses. There is even a line of collectible lighthouses, Harbour Lights, for those who wanted to have miniature versions of them in their homes.
I had once wondered if the fascination with lighthouses had to do with their phallic shape, and that might be part of the mystery, but the bigger piece has to do with their being a beacon of light into the darkness. It makes the perfect metaphor for inspirating people in a world of darkness. That is the focus of this book, The Lighthouse Effect, by Steve Pemberton. Pemberton is a motivational speaker and writer of A Chance in the World, a semi-autobiography about his childhood as an orphan and the difficulties he had to overcome. That book became a motion picture in 2019 that had limited release but good reviews.
The Lighthouse Effect, according to Pemberton, is a human quality that makes some people as strong and helpful as a lighthouse. We all have known people like this. They are solid and reliable, pointing the way out of danger and into hope, but never commanding. In a world full of darkness and uncertainty, they light the way.
As Pemberton writes:
"The lighthouse effect is the idea that ordinary people, immersed in the business of their own lives, wrestling with their own struggles and imperfections, can touch the lives of others. It suggests that our lives are formed, altered, and characterized by the smallest of interactions that bend the arc of our lives. It means that we see our life experience as an opportunity to touch the life of another, to see in their life a connection to our own. It is a framework for living, learning, and leading, a way to more positively engage with one another, to build trust, to see beyond the labels that define us to the human experiences that bond us."
This is a deeply personal book. The author relates his early experiences being passed from one foster family to another, hearing from one of them that they saw him as worthless. His first "lighthouse" was a man called John Sykes, a single man who took him in as a teenager and encouraged him to apply for college. He writes often about his struggles to figure out what happened to his mother and father, and there is a touching chapter about how he re-connected with long-lost relatives and learned much more about where he came from.
There are nine such stories that make up the bulk of this book, all involving people who embodied the lighthouse effect. If you are feeling sorry for yourself sometimes, these are stories that can pull you out of your funk. There's a story about a hero of 9/11 who rescued over a dozen people from the South Tower before dying himself. There's a moving tribute to two parents that lost a daughter tragically to suicide and started a foundation in her honor. Pemberton ends the book with a tribute to a total stranger that he had to tracked down after she had given him books to read during a dark, lonely time in his childhood.
As I saw in my last post about acts of kindness, simple acts have the potential to make a huge difference in a single life. They can be remembered and treasured long after other events have lost their meaning. It's easy to get cynical by watching the news these days, but stories like these rarely make the news, which is why it's so vital for people to tell them and others to read about them. In an age of mass shootings, corruption, and polarization, it's nice to remember that goodness still matters sometimes.
It's also easy to discount actions that seem a waste of time. The world is so huge- what effect can one person have? In the small scheme of things, obviously one person can have a huge impact. And even in the grand scheme of things, it's often one person, (Martin Luther King, Greta Thunberg, Mother Teresa, Jane Goodall) who stands up and starts a movement that makes the difference.
Sure, it's a metaphor. Lighthouses are somewhat phallic buildings that keep ships from running aground. But they symbolize much more to many, and symbols can be powerful, as this book shows. They symbolize light, and their light symbolizes hope, wisdom, and love. Here's how the book ends.
"Each day is an invitation to seek, and to be, a lighthouse. The light we desperately long to see in the world already exists in us. Wherever you are, however you are- strong and resolute, scared or scarred, uncertain yet still hopeful, perhaps in the midst o your own storm- you have the capacity to be a lighthouse. It is my great hope that you will connect to your own human lighthouses and offer them a further word of gratitude. Most importantly, I am equally hopeful that the future will find you standing on the lantern deck of your own lighthouse, gazing bravely out to sea, summoning the sailor toward safe harbor. As you do, you will be reflecting the wisdom that is as timeless as the structure itself."