There is a technique in writing called word painting. It differs from the way most of us write in that it paints an image in the reader’s mind. It does not merely state a description, such as “the grass was green and the heavens were blue.” Rather, it recognizes that some matters strike us as beautiful not because of aesthetics – when colors match or the symmetry is perfect – but because they make a deep psychological impression on us due to the mood or the value they embody. Word painting uses rich evocative words that accurately portray the images in the writer’s mind. Experiences such as these can mollify many ugly moments we human beings have to endure.
On my arrival at Kennedy Airport some weeks ago, I was confronted with psychological terror by the US customs authorities. We were asked to go to the arrival hall where we had to wait for at least two hours to get through customs. There were no chairs or benches. Several hundred people, some of them clearly over 80 years old, had to stand in line shuffling forward as if they were cattle. There was no water to buy, and none of the US officials showed any interest in helping these people. Their sole occupation was ordering us to stand in line and keep calm. It was ruthless and inhuman. (On an earlier visit to New York, I had waited over three hours, started to faint – there is no air-conditioning in this arrival hall – and had to sit on the floor until another traveler gave me some water!). My line was for visitors only. American citizens went through much faster, and not one of them protested to the authorities that these hundreds of visitors were being ill-treated, in total contradiction to American values. One wonders what happened to the famous poem written by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” While shuffling along, hearing many people complain about this as a frequent scenario at Kennedy airport, I started doubting the intelligence of the American people. Did not one of them ever think of solving this problem by providing a numbered ticket for every visitor, benches for people to sit on, and officials to call up each person by their number? Or was there, perhaps, another message? That visitors were really not so welcome after all?
It seems the good Lord did not want me to leave me with this bitter taste, as He arranged that I would also have some uplifting experiences while in the States. First, He made me forget my hat in an airport bus, leaving me with the feeling that I would never see it again. To my total astonishment the bus driver found it, realized it must have been mine, turned his bus around, parked it, and brought me my hat as I stood in line at the check-in counter. It was a genuine gesture of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The driver was a simple man, probably with minimal education, but a greater mensch than the sophisticated customs officials. My bitter experience at customs began to evaporate.
But that was not all. On my flight from LA to New York I was given a window seat. It was midday and the clear, sunny skies gave me an incredible view below. I looked around me and saw to my utter astonishment that, instead of looking out at the view, most passengers were asleep or keeping themselves busy with trivialities to cope with their obvious boredom.
It was an opportune moment to engage in word painting, and I wrote some notes in an attempt to analyze myself while looking to our world from on high.
There were clouds, majestic clouds. No wind. The masses of clouds moved in a state of solemness. They appeared to be animated by an inner will and were completely in control of themselves. Nothing could disturb them. Their tranquility was mind-boggling. I imagined myself to be one of them and an inner peace descended upon me. It made all my troubles and headaches laughable. Here I was on top of the world and able to see things in their grandeur, in a way that would not have been possible on the ground. The clouds were looking down on mankind, including myself, with great mercy. I found myself viewing my smallness with gentle sarcasm, on one hand, and with wise understanding of man’s insignificance, on the other – as if I no longer belonged to the human race and had pity on it.
Looking from above I also saw pine trees. They stood in multitudes of tens of thousands. Straight and extremely proud, as with an iron will. Only occasionally did they move forward and backward, resembling Jews shuckling (swaying) while praying to the Lord. There was total silence among them as if they were strangers to each other. They towered over this small world, removed from all human weaknesses. Each of them stood with the constancy of unprecedented power. They looked like arrogant philosophers, aloof to worldly matters, yet steeped in humility. The grandeur of impeccable might and mercy.
The plane moved onward like an eagle; the Rocky Mountains and the desert appeared. Suddenly, a dominant impulse overtook me. I had to stand up out of deep respect for the scenery. It was in a desert like this that God had appeared to the Israelites. This view forced me to understand the journey of the Jews who walked for forty years through barren land and refused to leave the mighty desert for the Land of Israel: We were here, we saw this and it mattered to us as nothing else ever could. God is in this place.
Suddenly the biblical Job entered my mind. I could feel his final discussion with God at the end of the book named after him. He asked God why he had to suffer so much though he was innocent, and God replied by bidding him to contemplate the deserts and the mountains, the oceans and the skies. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of this world? Knowest thou the ordinance of heaven? Canst thou set the thereof in the earth? Canst thou lift up thy voice to the clouds? asks God of Job. Seldom have such sublime places had to bear the burden of such weighty and devastating questions.
Indeed, the mighty phenomenon of nature teaches man that his life does not always go his way. The world is greater than he. The world may appear illogical to Job but it is not meaningless. Our lives are not the measure of all things. Sublime places are a reminder of human insignificance and frailty when compared to God’s plan. It is the mountains, the girdle round the earth, the deserts that stand for that knowledge. I sat down in my seat and was transformed.
Perhaps it would be wise for the US authorities to have their airport personnel take a flight over the vast landscape of America. It may make them a bit more sensitive, and aware that their visitors, though perhaps insignificant, are the contemporaries of God and therefore greater than the majestic clouds, deserts, and pine trees of the American landscape.