The Power of the Universal Experience

“Look!” I yelled backward into the house as I flung open the front door and ran barefoot out into our yard. “Charlie, Gary, come see!” Across the street a brilliant rainbow arched across the sky, perfectly framing the cross and brick of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Two blocks further down the road, the rainbow poured down in a blaze of glory into the steeple of St. Michaels, which glowed white with light as if all the photons in the rainbow had filled it to overflowing. Within seconds, my son was standing at my side in stocking feet, gazing up at the sky as well. Then, we ran.

Stillwater rainbow
Monday evening’s double rainbow could been seen across the St. Croix Valley. #nofilter

Still barefoot, we chased the rainbow around our neighborhood for nearly an hour. As we ran, the near end of the rainbow appeared to move from the church steeple to the river, and then onward to Wisconsin. When it faded, we headed slowly home, only to turn and laugh with joy when it reappeared a minute later. After a while, the sky turned yellow and lightening flickered beneath the rainbow. Then, eventually, huge fluffy clouds rolled in and covered the sky in pink. Everything was pink.

After the rainbow came a brilliant pink sunset. #stillnofilter

Later at night, after my son was finally sleeping, I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw dozens of friends posting photos of the same double rainbow and fluffy pink clouds seen from round the St. Croix Valley. The rainbow cascaded down into a cornfield in River Falls, past horses in Withrow, and from one bank of the St. Croix River to the other over downtown Stillwater.

Head to and you’ll find dozens upon dozens of photo collections that speak to the power of the universal experience. Hundreds of photos from different people in different places are presented together in eerie or reassuring sameness, depending on your perspective. A dozen campfires sparkle beside a dozen moonlit lakes. Six dozen campers gaze out at snowcapped mountains from inside glowing tents, and twelve hopeful hands pin golden leaves against the sky in the filtered light of fall. Though most of us consider ourselves to be utterly unique individuals, it appears that we are actually rather alike in what we find beautiful and inspiring.

To a degree, these universal hopes and fears are influenced by the places we live and our different life experiences. Standing at the edge of a prairie, some see empty desolation, while others see a wide-open sky with endless opportunity. Other shared experiences cut across cultures and physical boundaries – the radiance of a smile, the comfort of a hug, or the peaceful innocence of a sleeping child.

In Minnesota, some of our most treasured shared experiences happen at our lakes and rivers. Whether we are scrambling to climb Gooseberry Falls with 800,000 annual visitors, or enjoying a solitary campfire near the edge of a tiny wooded lake with a handful of friends and family, these universal experiences become part of the fabric of our lives and the culture that binds us together. When we see those photos of a shirtless kid leaping with glee from the edge of a dock or the back of a woman’s head as she paddles a canoe across the water, we smile, not because the photos are unique, but because they are so familiar. As we see them, we’re invited into a shared experience.

BWCA May 07 - Kawishiwi Lake
Here’s my own favorite “woman canoeing” photo, taken before Instagram was created or I had joined Facebook.

Last night, as I scrolled past photo after photo of pink, scalloped clouds and bright, arching rainbows, I felt a simple joy in knowing that other people had shared my wonder at the evening’s show of light. It reminded me of how much we share in common, in spite of political differences. We yearn for clean air and water, a sense of community, and good health for ourselves and loved ones. We delight in a turquoise lake, a towering stand of pines, and a little red cabin at the edge of a stream. And, we marvel at a perfectly formed rainbow and cloud-filled sky in pink.