The Gift of Matthew Sanford

by Maria Clara Paulino, guest contributor

When I first heard the interview with Matthew Sanford on the radio, I was moved beyond words. I wanted to hear it again. The second time I heard it, online, I was more moved still.

I wanted to understand what had touched me so deeply beyond his extraordinary story of loss and victory, and the candid and engaging quality of his telling. There was something else I could hear in the silences between his words that mesmerized me. What was it, exactly? I still do not know, but I keep asking the question.

On the surface, Sanford’s life and mine have little in common. Very different stories indeed. Why, then, do I feel so strongly that I know what he is talking about? It cannot be the accident, the hospital, the paralysis — all of it so tragic that to say I understand would be worse than arrogance; so tragic, indeed, that it almost drowns out a subtler resonance. And yet, is it not this resonance that Sanford points to when he mentions silence, darkness, and quietness as portals to a deeper awareness?

It could be an illusion, this feeling that there is something in common, something that I understand. But it could also be that the commonality resides not in what human beings experience but in the way we experience it; that it is not in the action but in the gap, in the silence that follows and precedes action, that we meet as equals and see the other in ourselves.

A similar question comes to mind when I think of what Sanford calls “the gulf” — the isolation of personal experience from other personal experiences, the “existentialist” separation between self and even those the self most loves. I do not share with him the exact same reason for this gulf, his particular experience of pain and loss; what I share is the awareness of the separation and the anguish that results from that awareness.

Mouth of the Douro, PortoSunset at the mouth of the Douro in Porto, Portugal. (photo: Simon Blackley/Flickr)

As Sanford acknowledges, we all share it. We know we cannot be sure that the emotion we feel is perceived in the same intensity and depth by anyone else, however much intimacy there may be between those concerned. And, when two lovers watch the sun bleeding into the ocean, do they see the same shades of orange and red? Yet, if we share the desperate awareness of this gulf, is that not a most powerful commonality?

Mystics and theologians, Buddha and Christ have claimed for such a long, long time that separation is the illusion, yet we hang on to this illusion with all our might. It is clearly more soothing to us than that which we have in common. After all, “to have in common” means to have one’s boundaries less clearly marked, to feel with another — pretty scary stuff that may explain why we lend so much weight to our differences and place so much value on them, from individuals to societies, from East to West and North to South. Even when we hate the differences (those seen as negative always embodied in “the other”) and in direct proportion, it seems, to how much we hate them, we pour our attention on them; we bring them out under the glaring sun so everyone can stare at them until they seem insurmountable in their three-dimensional “reality.”

But, Sanford claims, if we find ourselves in darkness, or in a very quiet place, we become more attuned to a different, subtler reality; and if we are strong enough to become vulnerable, to stay with the fear — in short, if we “surrender” — we may glimpse the contours of authentic feeling (how scary is that?) and hear the song of our oh-so-common human experience of striving and losing, loving and letting go, living and dying at every moment of existence.

And this may be the most healing story we can tell ourselves.

Clara PaulinoMs. Paulino lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina and teaches Art History and Criticism at the University of Winthrop and the University of Porto. In her "Writing in the Margins" she muses on a home in-between: languages, places, ways of seeing.

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