Symbolism matters. We witness it daily, saturating our culture. It is prevalent in advertising, branding, logos, campaigns, sports teams and even national identification. Our reliance on symbols is as ancient as it is current. The earliest forms of communication are well documented in the anthropological and archeological record. We are not as advanced as we may seem when one considers the mass utilization of memes and emojis today. This is not so much a criticism as an observation, and in many ways, a compliment to our prehistoric brothers and sisters relying on impressive hieroglyphics, hand paintings and rock art to express, and propagate, messages. They could visually and economically convey in time-proven fashion, still communicating to us today after thousands of years.
In Western culture is there a month on our calendar that provides a single symbol more pervasive, universal and powerful as February with its embedded heart? The arrows flung by Cupid across the generations penetrate us symbolically on Valentine’s Day, and love is marketed as a heart, molded in the shape of pins, balloons and candy boxes. It is the shortest month of the year, but we commit ourselves to have its days illuminated in bright shades of red radiating into our hearts, allowing love to dominate the air. It certainly dominated as we entered and experienced Columbus, Ohio for a series of beautiful encounters celebrating the mission of Operation Respect. From hospitals to community-based projects, an educational forum to an intimate concert, love filled the air and hearts were aglow. It was the perfect month to be there.
On the final morning we met Kaleigh Hague, a graduate of Ohio University’s Music Therapy Program. She served Sound Health Music, and today can be found at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus working as a neo-natal music therapist and clinical researcher. We learned about the impact of music on the healing process and toured the impressive facilities. Kaleigh brought us to a ward where a young mother quietly sits bedside, patiently day after day, as her little newborn boy, premature and critically challenged in his respiratory ability, rocks and responds to gentle lullabies. His eyes are covered with bandages due to an ailment, tubes connected to sophisticated equipment monitoring his heart and vital signs, and the faint electronic beeps and hums fade behind the sweet music. The little one excitedly moves his arms and feet, and there it appears, his smile. Music is scheduled as diligently as other treatments, and he is positively responding, gaining weight, building his immunity and strength. He is building ours, too. This is the power in the reciprocation of the heart. Kaleigh wears a shirt that says, “I Break Stigmas.” Three symbols tell a story. One is an anchor, the other a butterfly, bracketing a heart, not perfect, but perhaps damaged or broken. We understand February and all its love represent the other, fragile reality of life. Nowhere is this duality more apparent than in children whenever trials, trauma or violence threaten, interrupt or break the larger call to love.
Thus, when Valentine’s Day 2018 was shattered in a blast of gunfire in Parkland, Florida, hearts were stolen and broken beyond measure. It was an attack on the day of love itself. We struggle to find a symbol or reason for this, until the children, parents, loved ones and innumerable spirits gather through the tears to stand for love, refusing to have the sadder and darker side of life co-opt our collective right for love to prevail. As winter turns to spring, February to March, Operation Respect goes from Columbus to Washington, and joining us will be members from Parkland bringing their hearts and sharing in song – and we hardly pretend to know how deeply symbolic their very resilience means to the nation and world. I like to believe what is on Kaleigh’s shirt in a hospital ward with one tiny little boy breathing for his place in the world is universal with the Parkland kids – an anchor, a butterfly, and in between a less-than-perfect heart that beats and feeds, and sometimes bleeds.
The frost melts on my porch. Nature takes her proper course, as she has for centuries and millennia. She has her own calendar, hardly dependent on February, rotating seasons and allowing the month of the Valentine to give way in the thaw. She presents a kind message, a heart, less than perfect in the snow. Symbolically, it’s worth capturing. Spiritually, it hardly departs. Love, so we are reminded, is perennial. May our messages, now and for the future, be influenced naturally via quiet reflection and observation, and by peaceful, gentle time spent with, and listening to, the children. St. Valentine wouldn’t mind this – all year long.
Written by John McKenna, Executive Director, Operation Respect