Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.—Isaiah 51:1 (NRSV)

Bernice Johnson Reagon, a guiding light of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers in the 1960s and for 30 years a principal voice in the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, once said in an interview, “If, in moving through your life, you find yourself lost, go back to the last place where you knew who you were, and what you were doing, and start from there” (Phenix & Selver, 1985, as cited in Tyson, 2004, p. 288).

Poet and memoirist Maya Angelou echoes the significance of this process of going back. As she once put it in an interview, “It takes a lot of courage to remember. And if the speaker who says I can’t remember is just made aware that, if you develop the courage, you can remember—and if you don’t want to, it’s probably too painful for you to come face-to-face with it—try. Little by little. And then finally those huge and unswallowable stones might be lifted up” (Hanick & Hanick, 1990).

Reagon’s and Angelou’s words are soulful words for those who find themselves lost, words that invite individuals to look back, to look down, to look within, to recover the soul. They are words that have haunted me over decades, perhaps because, for me, finding the last place where I knew who I was could well entail a long and unsettling journey back.

This article draws on an array of artistic, narrative, pastoral theological, scientific, and social scientific sources of personal significance to emphasize the importance of the individual and of practices of soulful introspection around one’s childhood past. I engage in this exploration of the uniqueness of each person not to thwart but to supplement prevailing trends in pastoral theology that for decades have focused, with great beneficence, on spiritual care and communal contexts, i.e., on ways that persons are, in the words of pastoral theologian Emmanuel Y. Lartey (2003, p. 34), “like all others” and “like some others.” Attending to individual difference—to a soulful looking back and looking within, as Reagon and Angelou promote, i.e., to the “like no other” aspect of personhood in Lartey’s threefold paradigm—is, to my way of thinking, a correspondingly vital path to a more genuine and generous life together. As I put it elsewhere, “In attending when we can and must to the one over the many—to the individual, to the particular, to the singular, to the lost, to the special, to the marginal, [to the soulful] in the other and in ourselves—we discover not superiority and hierarchy but our only hope for ‘mutuality without coercion’” (Dykstra, 2018, p. 23, citing Jolly, 2009, p. 101).

Reclaiming one’s center

At some point each Christmas season our family watches again The Rise of the Guardians (Ramsey, 2012), an animated film by Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker and children’s book author William Joyce and dedicated to his daughter Mary Katherine, who died of a brain tumor at age 18 two years prior to its release (see also Carlin, 2016). In the film, a team of four Avengers-like Guardians of Childhood is led by Nicholas St. North, a.k.a. Santa Claus but here called by his fellow Guardians simply “North” for short. North in this case is no soft-touch lackey but instead a fierce and heavily tattooed defender of childhood wonder, replete with jet-powered sleigh and reindeer you do not want to mess with.

North is summoned by the Man in the Moon—a silent, godlike figure—to convene North’s three fellow Guardians to defend against a recent awakening from the Dark Ages of the sinister Boogeyman, whose sole purpose is to instill fear in children. To counter this threat, North is joined in a high-level summit by the three other Guardians of Childhood, namely, E. Aster Bunnymund, a.k.a. the Easter Bunny or here just “Bunny,” an equally tough and intrepid defender of childhood hope; the Tooth Fairy, nicknamed “Tooth” and herself a stalwart defender of childhood memories; and finally, the Sandman, or “Sandy,” a guardian of children’s sleep and defender of childhood dreams. The Man in the Moon has instructed these four Guardians of childhood wonder, hope, memories, and dreams to ordain a new, fifth Guardian, Jack Frost, to aid them in countering the rising threat of the Boogeyman.

But Jack Frost, a hellion teenager who mostly just likes to have fun by giving children snow days off from school, has no interest in accepting this grave new assignment. The four current Guardians share Jack’s own skepticism concerning his ability to protect children from anything: “Jack Frost is many things,” says an incredulous Bunny, “but he is no Guardian.” Jack agrees with this assessment and shuns this new responsibility—the reaction of many we know when first summoned by the Man in the Moon to their particular high calling. North takes Jack aside for a stern talking-to: “Who are you, Jack Frost?” North demands. “If Man in Moon chose you, you must have something special inside. What is your center?” Jack can only respond with quiet despair, “I don’t know.”

Psychologically attuned readers will not be surprised to learn that much of the rest of the film involves Jack Frost’s efforts to find his center by reclaiming a repressed and traumatic childhood past. As Jack himself puts it at one point, “How can I know who I am until I find out who I was?” He was being pressed, to draw again from Bernice Johnson Reagon, to go back to the last place where he knew who he was, and what he was doing, and start from there.

One powerful exemplar for me of this kind of going back has been Domingo Martinez (2012), whose first book The Boy Kings of Texas was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012. I have noted elsewhere:

Until the time of his award nomination at age forty, Martinez was selling business cards at an obscure print shop in a small town north of Seattle. His book is a raw and unsparing memoir of a hardscrabble childhood of poverty, racism, and alcohol-fueled abuse on the South Texas border. Asked by a reporter (Tillman, 2012) how he managed to write of his childhood with such naked transparency, Martinez responded: “I was drawn toward the pain. . . . If the memory felt uncomfortable, if it was something I knew our family didn’t talk about, I’d attack it head-on.” Chapter by brutally honest chapter, attack he does. (Dykstra, 2018, p. 3)

Martinez, in a word, went back, reclaiming shameful childhood memories for his own and his readers’ welfare and salvation. How could he know who he is until he found out who he was?

“Who are you, Jack Frost? What is your center?” “If, in moving through your life, you find yourself lost,” uncertain of your center, “go back to the last place where you knew who you were, and what you were doing, and start from there.” How can you know who you are until you find out who you were?

A love of the night and the unquiet coffin

To ask of someone What is your center? is to inquire into that person’s soul. Pastoral theologian Donald Capps (1994, pp. 82–104) once called the soul the core or coreness of the self and sought to distinguish soul from spirit. Spirit, Capps (1995) observes, “blazes with light,” whereas soul is connected with darkness, “with the night world, the realm of the dead, and the moon” (pp. 142–143)—and perhaps therefore, we might speculate, with the Man in the Moon.

In a recent memoir Learning to Walk in the Dark, Episcopal minister and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor (2014) likewise zeroes in on what Capps would recognize as the night world of the soul. By revisiting and entering anew into experiences of darkness both actual—by spending time, for example, in a cave devoid of all light—and intrapsychic, Taylor surveys previously neglected crevasses of her life and faith. Now in older adulthood more skeptical of the “full solar spirituality” and “well-lit churches” (pp. 7, 12) of her youth and early ministry, she pauses to consider not only what as a child she learned to be afraid of in the dark but also, as important, what in later life she has come to embrace in it, including a more fully embodied but also more tenuous faith. “Endarkenment, like enlightenment,” she writes, “is a work in progress”:

The best thing I can say is that learning to walk in the dark has allowed me to take back my faith, removing it from the glare of the full solar tradition to recover by the light of the moon. Now the sun still comes up, but it also goes down. . . . With limited time left on this earth, I want more than the top halves of things—the spirit but not the flesh, the presence but not the absence, the faith but not the doubt. (p. 186)

Bestselling horror novelist Stephen King (2010), in an uncharacteristic foray into nonfiction entitled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, describes finding quite early in his life what Martinez, Capps, and Taylor would discover only much later of the generative power of soulful depths, for the young King even in childhood was a happy prodigy of darkness: “I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin—that’s all,” he says. “If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It’s what I have” (p. 158). A horror movie buff as a boy, King could tolerate seeing Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap but says he really would have preferred that she “run into Vic Morrow from The Blackboard Jungle”:

I felt that one look at Vic’s switchblade knife and gimlet gaze would have put Hayley’s piddling domestic problems in some kind of reasonable perspective. And when I lay in bed at night under my eave, listening to the wind in the trees or the rats in the attic, it was not Debbie Reynolds as Tammy or Sandra Dee as Gidget that I dreamed of, but Yvette Vickers from Attack of the Giant Leeches or Luana Anders from Dementia 13. Never mind sweet; never mind uplifting; never mind Snow White and the Seven Goddam Dwarfs. At thirteen I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash. (p. 45)Footnote 1

King’s preternatural love of the night and the unquiet coffin affords those who step foot into his novels unflinching access to the parameters and perils of the soul. But while his pursuit of endarkenment has been King’s center from childhood, it was not a core or calling easy for him to embrace. He spent decades of his life, he says, being ashamed of what he wrote.

As a kid and budding adolescent over the course of eight years, King would hitchhike almost every weekend the 14 miles to the closest movie theater, the Ritz, that regularly showed horror films. As a 13-year-old eighth grader, he came up with the idea of novelizing one of his favorites of these films, Richard Matheson’s The Pit and the Pendulum, in an eight-page print version that he would then mimeograph and attempt to sell to his friends at school in hopes of making enough profit for the next movie ticket and, if things went well, some popcorn and a Coke. He wrote the “book” in two days flat. At a time when the price of a movie ticket was 40 cents, King made a whopping nine dollars on his first day of sales. He writes:

It all seemed too good to be true.

It was. When the school day ended at two o’clock, I was summoned to the principal’s office, where I was told I couldn’t turn the school into a marketplace, especially not, Miss Hisler said, to sell such trash as The Pit and the Pendulum. . . .

“What I don’t understand, Stevie,” she said, “is why you’d write junk like this in the first place. You’re talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?”

. . . I had no answer to give. I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. (pp. 47–50)

King knows that what he writes is not much, knows he is not Shakespeare. But he knows, too, that acknowledging and attending to his center—allowing himself to be interested in what interests him despite the shame and shaming and to become, in a sense, a guardian of his childhood wonder, hope, memories, and dreams—have served him well enough over the years (some three hundred fifty million copies sold and counting). “There have been times,” he says, “when for me the act of writing has been a little act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair” (p. 249)—a working out, I think, or maybe a making use, of the apparatus of his soul.

Whereas the spirit, writes Jungian psychologist James Hillman (1997), “is fast and quickens what it touches, its direction vertical and ascending” and feeding the “higher and abstract disciplines, the intellectual mind, refinements, and purifications,” the soul, by contrast, comes “in experiences of descent, of death, of dreams of the night . . . in the realm of [ordinary human] experience and [of] reflections within experience” (p. 68, as cited in Capps, 1995, pp. 142–43). Our forebears in ancient Israel and elsewhere, Capps (1995) points out, located the soul anatomically in the liver, in the digestive system, in one’s gut, one’s core, one’s center, whereas Christianity, with its emphasis on spirit (or pneuma) over soul (or psyche), tended to shift attention ever upward in the body: “If Christianity became the religion of spirit (pneuma),” Capps says, “it did so in part by giving special prominence to the heart, displacing the liver as the locus of divine messages” (p. 148), and in our day moving even further upward in the body to a contemporary fascination with the mind, especially the brain, as the locus of the self.

In the 1950s, psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson (1958) was ridiculed by theologians for emphasizing in his psychobiography of Martin Luther, Young Man Luther, how Luther’s greatest theological breakthroughs came to him while in the “sweat chamber,” i.e., while sitting on the toilet. “The reformer,” Erikson writes, spoke “of himself in the depth of his depression as fecal matter soon to be evacuated by the world-rectum”—Erikson cleaning up by quite a lot Luther’s own more colorful vernacular (p. 246). Erikson concludes that “Luther’s use of repudiative and anal patterns was an attempt to find a safety-valve when unrelenting inner pressure threatened to make devotion unbearable and sublimity hateful—that is, when [Luther] was . . . about to repudiate God in supreme rebellion, and himself in malignant melancholy” (p. 247), the principal affliction of the soul.

Theologians reading Erikson on Luther’s bowels as the locus of the divine howled with derision in their reviews of Young Man Luther, elevating instead a God of heart and mind. Reformation scholar Roland H. Bainton called Young Man Luther the worst book he had ever read on Luther; Martin Marty suggested that it was “semi-fictional” and “long ago demolished by historians who found [Erikson’s] reading of sources to be biased” (Marty, 2004, pp. 30–31, as cited in Capps, 2015, p. 329n3). That a book would generate such shaming by theologians, here standing in for Stephen King’s middle school principal Miss Hisler, should raise suspicions and makes it, of course, all the more worth reading. The theologians could not fathom a God who, in Erikson's (1958) words, “instead of lurking on the periphery of space and time, became for Luther ‘what works in us,’ . . . [a God whose] way is what moves from inside. . . . God, now less of a person, becomes more personal for the individual; and instead of constituting a threat to be faced at the end of all things, [God] becomes that which always begins—in us” (pp. 213–214)—a God revealed in the profane, the unsanitary, the unexpected, the unquiet coffin, the unoccupied tomb.

What is your center, Jack Frost? Where is your soul?

The soul brings one back down from philosophical abstractions, from spiritual mountaintops, from miracles, prophecies, and ecstatic experiences of oneness and community, and attends instead, Capps says, to the melancholy, the ordinary, the prosaic, the local, the individual—to what poet William Stafford (1998, p. 141) calls “the little ways that encourage good fortune,” not least a boy’s good fortune to bask in a vision of Yvette Vickers from Attack of the Giant Leeches or Luana Anders from Dementia 13.

Each gorilla is an individual

In his book In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, pastoral theologian Emmanuel Y. Lartey (2003) borrows from Harvard anthropologist Clyde Kluckholn and Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray's (1948) typology of the threefold nature of human personhood that speaks as well, in my view, to the interplay of spirit and soul within and among persons. Kluckholn and Murray discuss how “every . . . person is in certain respects: 1. Like all others; 2. Like some others; and 3. Like no other” (Lartey, 2003, p. 34). Lartey, in turn, reminds us that “each assertion of the threefold statement is true and important in itself”—and, I would add, enormously useful in helping caregivers navigate the complexities of persons and the convolutions of ministry.

We are like all others

Geneticists who have mapped the human genome have shown that at the level of the chromosomal base pairs that comprise our DNA, human beings are 99.8% identical. One must share that much genetic similarity with all other persons of all times and places just to get over the threshold of being recognizably human—99.8%. (Human beings also share 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos and 50% with fruit flies; Linden, 2020, p. 28). Every person, Kluckholn and Murray (1948) write, “experiences birth and must learn to move about and explore [one’s] environment, to protect . . . against extremes of temperature and to avoid serious injuries; . . . [everyone] grows in stature, matures, and dies; and [one] does all this and much more, from first to last, as a member of a society” (pp. 35–36).

Some years ago, a conference at Trinity Church in New York on the theme “sacred stories” (Hanick & Hanick, 1990) headlined keynote speakers Frederick Buechner and Maya Angelou. Buechner, a buttoned-down but eloquent Presbyterian minister who had grown up in wealthy white suburban Essex Fells, New Jersey, reflected poignantly on suffering in his childhood the suicide of his father. Next up was Angelou, who was introduced by a man who said, “And now for a completely different story.” Angelou, an effusive and eloquent poet who had grown up poor and Black with her grandmother and uncle in tiny Stamps, Arkansas, began by saying, “My story is exactly the same as Frederick Buechner’s story. His story and my story are identical. There is no mystery between human beings.” Then she, like Buechner, proceeded to tell of her own childhood trauma—of her rape at age seven-and-a-half and of how she did not talk for the next five years in its aftermath.

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (2005), in his classic The Art of Listening, writes:

Many analysts become analysts because they feel very inhibited to reach human beings, to relate to human beings, and in the role of analyst they feel protected. . . . [But] it is . . . very important that the analyst is not afraid of his own unconscious and therefore he is not afraid to open up the patient’s unconscious and . . . is not embarrassed about it. This leads me to . . . the premise of my therapeutic work: There is nothing human which is alien to us. Everything is in me. I am a little child, I am a grown up, I am a murderer, and I am a saint. . . . There is nothing in the patient which I do not have in me. And only inasmuch as I can muster within myself those experiences which the patient is telling me about . . . can I know what the patient is talking about. . . . The [Hebrew scriptures say]: “Love the stranger, because you have been strangers in Egypt and therefore you know the soul of the stranger [Deuteronomy 10:19].” (p. 100)

Like Angelou, Fromm is saying in his way that there is no mystery between human beings.

We are like all others. We should not despair of trying to understand each other even in this era of dangerously polarized religious and political discourse.

We are like some others

Lartey (2003) points out that because we are all human, “[W]e are each shaped [and] influenced by the community in which we are socialized” (p. 34). But Kluckholn and Murray also point out that being “like some others” is by no means limited to social classes, races, nations, or tribes. Seafaring people manifest certain similarities no matter the part of the world they come from. The same may be said of some common traits among desert-dwelling peoples, or among intellectuals, or athletes, or children who had tyrannical fathers, or among ministers, pastoral theologians, or hospital chaplains. This common ground that persons share with only some others is enormously formative, for better and at times for worse, for their sense of identity and communion. So many countless persons and peoples have benefited from the contextual and liberation theologies—Latin American, African American, feminist, queer—that have shaped scholarly discourse and pastoral practices for the past half century and that reflect the fact that we are like some others!

We are like no other

Each individual is sui generis, one of a kind, and when someone dies it can genuinely be said that the world will not see the likes of that person again (Capps, 2001, p. 247). As Kluckholn and Murray (1948) put it, “Each individual’s modes of perceiving, feeling, needing, and behaving have characteristic patterns . . . traceable, in part, to the unique combination of biological materials which the person has received from . . . parents,” but also, more exactly, from “countless and successive interactions between the maturing constitution and differing environing situations from birth onward. An identical sequence of such determining influences is never reproduced” (p. 37).

Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David J. Linden (2020), in Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality, casts aside worn “nature versus nurture” debates on what makes for unique personhood, citing instead vast new evidence in neurobiology that demonstrates both that the human genome “is not a detailed cell-by-cell blueprint for the development of the body and brain, but rather a vague recipe jotted down on the back of an envelope” (p. 37) and that how parents nurture (or fail to nurture) their child is but “one small part of the nonhereditary determination of traits” (p. 36). Not only are genes modified by experience, but experience includes, beyond parental nurture, “more complicated and fascinating things like the diseases you’ve had (or those that your mother had while she was carrying you in utero), the foods you’ve eaten, the bacteria that reside in your body, the weather during your early development, and the long reach of culture and technology” (p. 7). One’s individuality, then, “is not a matter of ‘nature versus nurture’ but rather of ‘heredity interacting with experience, filtered through the inherent randomness of development.’” While nearly every cell in one’s body contains one’s entire genome, Linden notes that in any given cell “only some of these genes will ever be activated.” Hair follicle cells, for example, do not express “the genes to make insulin,” nor do pancreas cells grow hair (pp. 37–38).

Drawing on multiple studies of genetically identical twins, especially research on identical twins separated at birth, geneticists are able to determine the relative weight, within a range of 0–100 percent, of heritability in relation to experience for any number of traits. Linden acknowledges that “most human traits, regardless of whether they are physical or behavioral, have a significant heritable component, usually ranging from 30 to 80 percent” (p. 22). One’s height, for example, assuming adequate nutrition, is highly heritable at 85 percent, the same level as the heritability of schizophrenia (p. 22). Perhaps more surprising, traits such as personality and religiosity also have a significant genetic component, at 50 percent and between 25–45 percent, respectively. By contrast, there is no heritable component whatsoever for one’s speech accent, which is determined solely by hearing the speech of others, more often by a child’s imitating the speech of peers than of parents (p. 31).

But each trait like height, schizophrenia, personality, or religiosity is determined not by a single gene but rather by many hundreds of them. Claims for an “IQ gene” or “empathy gene,” Linden points out, are “nonsense” (p. 33). Because the genome is not a “blueprint” but a “recipe jotted down on the back of an envelope,” gene expression is “exquisitely regulated” and human individuality therefore inevitable:

Genes can be turned on and turned off in different cell types, at different times, in response to all forms of experience—from hormonal fluctuations to infection to electrical activity from the sense organs. The regulation of gene expression, over both the short and long term, is the crucial place where genes and experience interact to forge human individuality. (p. 39)

Identical twins are not born with identical bodies nor with identical fingerprints. Neither, Linden points out, do they

smell exactly the same. Well-trained sniffer dogs can reliably distinguish between the body odor of identical twins. . . . Genetically identical twins, raised in the same household, will still show differences in both physical and behavioral traits. . . . People married to one member of an identical twin pair rarely find themselves romantically attracted to their spouse’s twin. And this lack of spark is mutual: few identical twins are attracted to their co-twin’s spouse. (p. 54)

As neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell puts it, “If you or I were cloned 100 times, the result would be 100 new individuals, each one of a kind” (Mitchell, 2018, as cited in Linden, 2020, p. 55).Footnote 2We are like no other.

A couple of months prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and during a winter break between semesters, I went to the Philadelphia Zoo to wander. When our daughters were younger, our family would often go there, but as they grew older, I had to own up to the fact that I was enjoying the zoo more than they were. As it became harder to coax them to go, I just started going by myself. I always feel better being there and need, often enough, to feel better.

I discovered during this visit that no one goes to the zoo on a 30-degree Wednesday in January. About five other patrons and I had the whole place to ourselves. After a couple of hours, I wanted, as always, to check in on the gorillas and wandered into the vast primate building, a place usually bustling with children and families but now a ghost town—just me, a four-hundred-pound gorilla named Louis, and a volunteer docent named Bill. The three of us talked gorilla without interruption for a good 30 minutes.

I learned that Bill was a retired high school biology teacher who every Wednesday for the previous 15 years had come to talk with visitors about the zoo’s seven gorillas. Since Christmas and New Year’s Day had fallen on the two Wednesdays prior to my visit and since at that time those were two of only four holidays that the zoo closed all year, Bill said he had really missed the gorillas and had been eager to get back to them that day. He loved his gorillas. At one point I asked him what was the most important thing he had learned about gorillas after watching them every Wednesday for 15 years. He replied without hesitation, “Each gorilla is an individual."

Bill’s answer reminded me of Mr. Flood, a Dublin zookeeper I had read about decades earlier and mentioned in the introduction to Images of Pastoral Care (Dykstra, 2005). Mr. Flood was known for a record of unusual success in the difficult task of breeding lions. When asked the secret of his success, Mr. Flood replied, “Understanding lions.” Asked in what consists the understanding of lions, he said, “Every lion is different” (Wisdom, 1965, p. 138, as cited in Dykstra, 2005, p. 8).

The emphasis on individual difference in the responses of Bill, the Philadelphia Zoo gorilla docent, and of Mr. Flood, the Dublin Zoo lion breeder, reminded me in turn of the work of Barbara McClintock, a geneticist who in 1982 became the first woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But the work for which she won the Nobel Prize—that of the transposition of genes from one part of the chromosome to another in Indian corn—had been completed nearly 40 years earlier. For 10 years beginning in the 1950s, McClintock tried to communicate her findings to other geneticists, who were baffled by and ridiculed her claims. So, she simply gave up trying to communicate her findings and spent the remainder of her long career in almost total isolation in her lab at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, working six days a week, 12 hours a day, almost exclusively with corn. As I put it previously:

At the heart of McClintock’s genius, her biographer . . . concluded, lay a passion for individual difference. McClintock [said], “The important thing is to develop the capacity to see one kernel [of an ear of Indian corn] that is different, and make that understandable. If something doesn’t fit, there’s a reason, and you find out what it is.” McClintock believed that the prevailing focus on classification and numbers blinded geneticists of her era to individual difference. . . . In their enthusiasm for what [she] called “counting,” her colleagues “too often overlooked the single aberrant kernel.”

How did McClintock come to grasp genetic mysteries that eluded others? She did so, she said, by taking time to look, by waiting to hear what the material itself had to say, striving for what she called a “feeling for the organism.” “One must understand how it grows, understand its parts, understand when something is going wrong with it. . . . You need to know those plants well enough that if anything changes, you [can] look at the plant and right away you know what this damage you see is from. . . . You need to have a feeling for every individual plant.” (Dykstra, 2001, pp. 80–81, citing Keller, 1983, pp. xxi, 97, 102, 198)

Bill the gorilla docent, Mr. Flood the lion breeder, and Barbara McClintock the seer of Indian corn reminded me in turn of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister beloved for his eponymous children’s television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and the importance to Rogers of attending to each individual child through the camera’s lens. As communications professor Mark J. P. Wolf (2017) puts it, “Unlike many children’s television shows, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood did more than simply entertain or occupy children’s attention; it educated them in the affective domain, encouraging such things as appreciation for difference, collaboration, self-expression, and self-worth” (p. 3). Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian David McCullough finds a similar message in Rogers: “Fred Rogers is a teacher . . . And what is he teaching? How to count to ten? No! How to name all the capitals in the United States? No! Here’s what he’s teaching: ‘You are like nobody else. There is only one person in the world like you, and . . . people can like you exactly the way you are’” (as cited in Wolf, 2017, p. 5).

Eliot Daley, a former producer and writer for the Neighborhood who now attends the church where I worship, contrasted for me the recent movie in which Tom Hanks portrayed Fred Rogers to the documentary about Rogers released a year or so before. Daley said that journalist Tom Junod, who was portrayed in the Tom Hanks movie,

really “got” Fred in so many ways, and the film about his engagement with Fred (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) is wonderful in ways that the outstanding documentary from last year (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”) was emphatically not. In short, the documentary was almost misleading about why/how Fred had the effect he did on children, as it had a lot of footage of Fred at PBS stations surrounded by preschoolers on what we/they called “Mister Rogers Days.”

But those were rare events, and you could never see [Fred] with a child on the program itself—for the simple reason that the program never had one on set. It was Fred 1:1 with the viewing child at home. . . . The [Tom] Hanks film is so much more revealing of the EFFECT that Fred had on those with whom he engaged. . . . [In that film] we see Fred working his work with an adult like us; the movie is all about that effect, and if we bother, we can then project the effect onto what must have been happening when a child engaged him through the program. Like any true “catalyst,” Fred occasions a response and transformation of elements . . . not evident in the resulting entity. (E. Daley, personal correspondence, January 8, 2020)

Wolf, McCullough, and Daley are all saying in their ways that Mister Rogers wanted children to know that each of them was like no other. He wanted adults to know this, too. He came to this knowledge—in keeping with the counsel of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Jack Frost, Domingo Martinez, Frederick Buechner, and Maya Angelou—by summoning courage to go back again and again to his own painful childhood past, a time, he said, when he cried to himself whenever he was alone (see Hollingsworth, 2005, pp. 125–26). One’s uniqueness, in other words, derives in large part from one’s experiences of trauma. As Kluckholn and Murray (1948), referring to these unpredictable “accidents” of development, put it:

A child gets lost in the woods and suffers from hunger and exposure. Another child is nearly drowned by a sudden flood in a canyon. Another loses his mother and is reared by an aged grandmother, or his father remarries and his education is entrusted to a stepmother with a psychopathic personality. Although the personalities of children who have experienced a trauma of the same type will often resemble each other in certain respects, the differences between them may be even more apparent, partly because the traumatic situation in each case had certain unique features, and partly because at the time of the trauma the personality of each child, being already unique, responded in a unique manner. (p. 37)

Fred Rogers, asked at one point to address professional ophthalmologists on how to help children overcome their fear of eye surgeries, began by telling them, “You were a child once, too . . . Just as each physician is a unique person, so is each child patient and each child’s parent” (Breck et al., 2013). He was encouraging the doctors to go back, to reclaim childhood memories, to remember.

I have lingered at greater length on this third truth—that we are like no other—in part because I think it comes closest to the language of the soul. Each of the aspects of the threefold typology—that we are like all others; like some others; like no other—is vitally important and should be held in tension with the other two. But the truths that we are like all others and like some others ring closer for me to the language of the spirit, the language of the heart and mind, the language of the upper regions of the body and the celestial reaches of the heavens—where in rare but welcome mystical moments we find ourselves caught up in our oneness with all creation and in harmonious communion with all persons everywhere or, at least and as important, with some persons somewhere.

The truth that we are like no other, on the other hand, comes closer for me to the language and experience of the soul, of having to come back down from the mountaintop and into the valley of the shadow of death—the language and experience of one’s gut, one’s core, one’s childhood, one’s traumas, one’s center.

Am I a source of delight to the Source of my delight?

William James (1982), the progenitor of modern pastoral theology, famously (and controversially) defined religion in his The Varieties of Religious Experience as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual (persons) in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (p. 31, emphasis in original), the religious quest here, for James, an ultimately quite solitary—one might say soulful—one. It was here in Varieties that Anton Boisen discovered and appropriated words that captured his own soul and would constitute his genius and vocational burden and then that of other pastoral theologians and my own—James’s claim that the “human documents” that “we shall find most instructive need not be sought for in the haunts of special erudition—they lie along the beaten highway” (James, 1982, p. 3; see Boisen, 1936, pp. 10–11).

Who are you, Jack Frost? What is your center? These are questions, I think, that one can only finally answer, if one dredges up courage to answer them at all, for oneself.

In a sermon entitled “Message in the Stars,” Frederick Buechner (1979) imagined what would happen if all of a sudden one night the stars in the Milky Way started rearranging themselves such that they spelled out, “in letters light years tall, the sentence: I REALLY EXIST, or GOD IS.” Buechner envisions people suddenly “sinking to their knees” or “running back into their houses in terror” or experiencing “a good many tears of regret” (p. 45). He imagines worship services suddenly overflowing their usual buildings and having to be held instead in athletic stadiums, imagines theologians suddenly glib in finally having the proof that they were right after all.

Buechner envisions this light show in the heavens going on for some time, maybe even years, with God’s rewriting the message “in different languages, sometimes accompanying it with bursts of pure color or with music so celestial that even the hardened skeptic would be convinced that God must indeed exist after all” (p. 46). But then eventually, one night, Buechner imagines a little child looking up at the message in the stars, turning to his father or maybe even turning defiantly to God above, and saying, “So what . . . ? What difference does that make?” “And in the twinkling of an eye the message would fade away for good and the celestial music would be heard no more” (p. 47).

“What we need to know,” Buechner says,

is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-by-day lives who may not be writing messages . . . in the stars but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world. (p. 47)

John McDargh, a psychologist of religion at Boston College, quoting his one-time Benedictine colleague Dom Sebastian Moore (1980), suggests that the “primary and irreducible proposition about human beings . . . is that ‘we all desire to be desired by the one we desire’” (p. 11). Moore writes: “The only serious form of the religious question today is: Is human awareness, when it finds its fulfillment in love, resonating, albeit faintly, with an origin that ‘behaves,’ infinitely and all-constitutingly, as love behaves?” (p. 15). McDargh (1995) continues, “To ask this question in the poetry of the biblical tradition, ‘Does God have regard for me?’ or ‘Am I a source of delight to the Source of my delight?’” (p. 226).

Does God have regard for me? Am I a source of delight to the Source of my delight? These questions reflect melancholy yearnings of the soul; they signal desire for a God who, “instead of lurking on the periphery of space and time, [becomes for us] ‘what works in us,’... [a God whose] way is what moves from inside” (Erikson, 1958, pp. 213–214).

It is emphatically the case that human beings are spirit, i.e., are spiritual and communal, like all others and like some others, craving mystical moments and full-solar peaks in which to feel at one with the divine and with all persons everywhere as well as to identify with some persons somewhere. Human beings are also souls, like no other, where far down in lunar depths they find themselves introspective and alone, learning to walk in the dark and to regale the unquiet coffin. As persons are both spiritual and soulful creatures, these differing emphases may be a matter of degree more than of kind.

But I have found nonetheless that this difference in emphasis matters—perhaps particularly in an era of evangelical religious discourse and fascistic national rhetoric that functions to obliterate the Other and to impel ideals of oneness or community on church or nation. Is it inaccurate to sense that machinations to make all people one tend also to press them to be all the same, too often at the expense of experiences of the different, of persons of alternate power or softer voice? If, as Maya Angelou urges, one finds the courage to remember one’s story as an individual—if, as Domingo Martinez models, one allows oneself to be drawn toward the pain, to the things one’s family would not talk about—then one explores these unique aspects of oneself, as I say elsewhere, “not as a way to avoid community and context, not in order to live in isolation in the backwoods of Idaho, but to feel more deeply akin to others; to beautify and beatify community and context; to build, encourage, and delight in it” (Dykstra, 2018, p. 24). Focusing on the individual and on individual difference is, in my view, a surer path to pluralism, tolerance, and, yes, more genuine and respectful community.

William James (1958) once wrote:

The truth is too great for any one actual mind . . . to know the whole of it. . . . There is no point of view absolutely public and universal. Private and incommunicable perceptions always remain over, and the worst of it is that those who look for them from the outside never know where. (p. 19)

There are things we simply cannot know, from the outside, of the interior purposes and passions of others, and this obliviousness, James concludes, “forbids us in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own” (p. 169). The perception most central to him, James is saying, “is the necessity of respecting individual difference by means of tolerating what is not intolerant” (Dykstra, 2018, p. 88).

If, in moving through your life, you find yourself lost, go back to the last place where you knew who you were, and what you were doing, and start from there. In the end, for each of us this is of necessity a solitary journey back, a search for one’s center, one’s soul. But if readers might draw from these words even a morsel of courage to go there, and in turn might be so kind as to help me and to encourage others for whom they care to go back too, we may discover some glimmer of assurance that each of us is, beyond our wildest hopes, a source of delight to the Source of our delight. In this conviction are we most apt to find possibilities for genuine mutuality and spirited communion with others.