Transcendence is about looking outside ourselves and connecting with a larger world. It is about taking a larger perspective that includes past and future. When we practice transcendence, we move from our everyday lives into a larger way of thinking. It is linked to the idea of the sacred or the divine, whatever than might mean for a person.
Appreciation of beauty and excellence is about the ability to see something delightful and moving in people, places or situations. People who are strong in this area see something special in things others might ignore. It is about noticing and appreciating skill, talent, uniqueness and beauty. Other examples include admiring a beautiful car, building, or a finely-designed craft. It is about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. This can come out through art, nature, sport, or any area of life. When we see goodness in others, we are practicing this strength. This can also lead to us being good ourselves. Using this strength often leads to feeling of awe, admiration, elevation and wonder. The experience of transcendence often makes us want to improve ourselves and be kinder to others.
Rachel Carson grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. She and her dog, Candy, spent a lot of time exploring the woods and land that surrounded her home. Rachel was fascinated by the life that lived here – the plants, animals and insects. Her brother and sister were much older, so Rachel spent a lot of time alone. But she was happy. The creatures she interacted with were her friends. She would watch the birds in the air and the fish in the streams – she was happy just watching and learning.
In particular she enjoyed the streams that flowed through the land, but there was another type of water that she longed for and dreamed about – the great open ocean.
It was her mother who taught her to be respectful and have reverence for the creatures with whom we share the world. Rachel missed a lot of school and spent much of the time at home. But she was in good hands – her mother was a school teacher and nurtured her curiosity and passion.
She loved to read. Her favourite books were about animals like, The wind in the willows. She loved stories about how animals live in nature. Soon she was writing her own stories about animals and the wonder of nature. She entered competitions and won prizes for her stories. She began to dream that maybe one day she could be a real writer who made a living from her work.
After school she decided to study English in college. She loved nature but did not want to study science because the science she learned in school had bored her. In her second year in college she had to take a science course so she chose biology. It was taught by a woman called Mary Skinker who had the same passion for nature that Rachel did. The class included field trips to state parks. Rachel learned to love Biology.
In her class they learned to dissect animals in order to learn how wildlife lived and grew. She also discovered an old fossil with the imprint of a fish that lived in the ocean that covered the region a long time ago. These discoveries thrilled Rachel, lighting up her curious mind.
But, then came a time where Rachel had to choose between her two passions: English and Biology. As she pondered the question, she opened a book of poems and found the following line:
For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.
She had a sudden realisation. The sea was calling her. She knew her life would always be connected to the ocean. Her decision was made. She would be a scientist.
Many around her thought she was making a mistake. As a woman it would be hard to get a job as a scientist. But Rachel was determined. Whenever she made up her mind about something, she stuck it out, no matter what.
She got a scholarship to John Hopkins University. She was also invited to spend that summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory where she got to work with great scientists exploring sea life. It was a dream come true for her. She finally got to experience the awesome power and beauty of the sea. She worked hard, walked the sea shore and made lots of friends.
When she graduated though, Rachel could not get a job. No one wanted to hire a female scientist. Instead, she got a job as a teacher at a University. It wasn’t her dream but became a stepping stone on the way to fulfilling her purpose. After that Rachel got a job writing scripts for a radio programme in which she had to translate scientific terms into simpler language for the general public. Rachel made the stories easier to understand so the public could learn from it and enjoy the programmes. Rachel was nervous about taking the job but she took a leap of faith and backed herself. She knew she was a good writer and had a lot of knowledge about the sea that would stand to her.
Following on from that she wrote a booklet about fish. She wrote lots of articles for magazines and newspapers to make more money to help her family. It took her three years to finish her first book. In 1941, Under the Sea-Wind was published. It was filled with stories and facts about the sea. It also showed how the lives of all the creatures were connected. The book really helped the public to learn about sea life. This always drove Rachel’s work – she wanted science about the natural world to make sense to everyone.
After the destruction of WW2 Rachel wanted to help people understand that the decisions we make have a big impact on the natural world and all living things. We as humans must learn to protect the earth.
Over the next few years, she had a number of wonderful experiences. She went deep-sea diving, studying sharks, octopuses and other animals up close. She encountered Alligators in the swamps of the everglades and spent time on a boat doing research in the North Atlantic.
Rachel’s writing was beautiful. It was like poetry. She expressed things clearly and thoughtfully. She talked about ‘ecology’ – the relationship between a group of living things and their environment. Her next book, The sea around us became a best-seller. It won awards and was translated into twenty-eight different languages. Readers fell in love with the sea through Rachel’s passionate descriptions.
Her books brought lots of fame – something Rachel struggled with. She was shy and did not enjoy the attention. But with the fame came opportunity. She was able to quit her job and devote her work to writing about the natural world that she loved and cared for so much.
She spent the next while studying the shores along the east coast of the United States and soon finished another book, The edge of the sea. She poetically described the wonders that she found. The book explained how all the animals living on beaches adapted to the environment around them. Animals and plants developed into what they were because of their environment. She showed how they fit into those environments and helped make those places what they were.
As she was researching the book, Rachel had learned more about the effect of pollution on these natural places. Cities and factories were dumping waste into the rivers and oceans. Strong chemicals called pesticides were being sprayed onto crops. The farmers and corporations responsible claimed they needed to do it to kill the insects that damaged the plants. But spraying chemicals didn’t just harm the insects, but also the crops and the humans who ate them.
Throughout this time Rachel was caring for her aging mother and her nephew, Roger. Rachel’s health was also not good but she was driven on in her desire to help educate the public about the things she was discovering. She retreated to living on a piece of land on the coast of Maine. She and Roger explored the coastline together, studying moss and ferns. By night they examined the life in rock pools under flashlight, learning about the crabs and starfish by observing them. She wanted to teach her nephew about the wonder and beauty of nature. Her mother had passed this onto her and she was passing it onto Roger in turn.
The more Rachel learned about pollution and pesticides the more distressed she became. The pollution was killing birds, insects and fish. She knew also that humans too would get sick in the same way. Rachel saw that the government was doing nothing to protect people from these dangers. People around her warned her against going further with the work but she knew she must speak out against what was happening.
In 1960, Rachel was diagnosed with cancer but continued at her work despite pain and fatigue. She finally published her findings in a book called silent spring – so called because the earth would soon be silent if this trend continued. Huge numbers of people supported her; some criticised her. She didn’t want to ban the use of pesticides, she just wanted to learn more about them and understand the effect they were having on the whole environment. In the midst of the noise around her book Rachel grew weaker and retreated to her the quiet and peace of the sea and her home in Maine. This reminded her of why she dedicated her life to looking after nature. She listened to the sounds of the sea and watched the animals on the shore.
Soon, laws were passed that would slow down the damage people were doing to the world. She opened people’s eyes to these crucial issues. In April 1964, Rachel Carson died at the age of fifty-six. She was only one pioneering environmentalist but her impact on the world and her legacy are hard to measure. Like all great teachers it is hard to see where her influence ends.
In what way were both the strengths of transcendence and appreciation of beauty and excellence in evidence in the life of Rachel Carson?
Write about a time when you practiced the strength of appreciation of beauty and excellence. It might have been admiring the skill of a sports person. Or perhaps experiencing awe and wonder in nature. Or maybe spotting good qualities, strengths and talents in another person.
Describe what the experience feels like. What emotions accompany it? How might you increase your capacity for appreciation? What is one thing you can do this week to practice this strength?
In this exercise we develop an experience of transcendence. Think of a time when you felt connected to a larger whole. Perhaps it was feeling part of a group or connected to nature or the universe. Notice how it feels.
Next, begin by feeling your connection with yourself. Feel your body from the inside. Notice your breath rising and falling. Notice how with each breath you are taking in nourishment from the world and then releasing again on the exhale.
Get a sense of your body as a whole sitting here. Then, imagine your awareness moving outward and beginning to feel a felt connection with people near you. Perhaps you can feel a connection with earth beneath you and the sky above you. Include any living creatures in your environment or near you.
Imagine your awareness stretching further and further out to include all living creatures far and wide, including the mountains, rivers, seas, forests…until eventually you feel a sense of the earth as a whole…being a part of the earth…even the universe. Get a sense of the expansiveness, freedom. Stay with this experience for a few moments exploring it, and noticing any emotions that come with it. Then come back to your body to finish.