Lessons From “A Separate Peace”: Are You a Lighthouse or a Battleship?

It recently occurred to me that there are two types of people: lighthouses and battleships.

Having grown up near the Baltic sea, I’m familiar with battleships and lighthouses. When driving past the harbor, I always see a massive block of gray on the water… one or more ships belonging to the German navy.

If I let my consciousness drift further, it touches upon a lighthouse.

While lighthouses give me quiet reassurance, battleships don’t. I mean, it’s not like Denmark is going to invade anytime soon, right?

But let’s talk about what this has to do with you and me.

War and (a separate) peace

What made me think about lighthouses and battleship is a book I recently discovered: the 1959 novel A Separate Place by John Knowles. Apparently, it’s quite the classic in American schools.

The book is set in the US during World War 2. While that was at least a better place to spend the early 1940s than on my European home continent, it wasn’t a fun time to come of age.

And yet, coming of age is what teenagers always do, including the book’s narrator Gene and his best friend Phineas (or short: Finny).

Like almost around him, Gene is a battleship. His philosophy is that of war — and war sees the world in terms of win or lose.

As a battleship, Gene distrusts his friend’s positive intention. He doesn’t want to feel vulnerable and so he can’t admit his (platonic or romantic… depending on whom you ask) feelings towards his friend.

Finny, the quintessential human lighthouse

Unlike Gene, Finny is “an incorrigible, good-natured, carefree, athletic, daredevil type… He always sees the best in others, seeks internal fulfilment free of accolades, and shapes the world around himself to fit his desires.”

In other words, he’s a lighthouse.

And given that A Separate Peace is set in some of the darkest of times, Finny’s light is more necessary than ever, as the book’s narrator acknowledges:

“I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen… We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve… Phineas was the essence of this careless peace.”

How human lighthouses create a separate peace

Lighthouses are the most reassuring buildings in the world.

Imagine how it would feel to see a light in the darkness that tells you you’re close to a harbor, after weeks out on an endless, shaky sea. The relief would be palpable.

The light signals to you: “This way to safety. You’ve made it. You’ve arrived.”

Lighthouses are so special that the greatest of them — the Lighthouse of Alexandria — became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Well, Finny is basically the human equivalent of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. He cares about everyone and wants the best for everyone. Like a Golden Retriever who got turned into a human.

As Gene tells him:

“Phineas, you wouldn’t be any good in the war…. They’d get you some place at the front and there’d be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you’d be over with the Germans or the [Japanese], asking if they’d like to field a baseball team against our side. You’d be sitting in one of their command posts, teaching them English…. You’d get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more.”

That’s what lighthouses do. Their superpower is compassion and inclusion.

They offer their light to anyone and the concept of “enemy” doesn’t make sense to them. Lighthouses believe in the philosophy of trade — which thrives on contact, exchange, and reciprocity.

While everyone around him follows the philosophy of war, Finny creates a separate peace.

How this is relevant today

While we (thankfully!) don’t find ourselves in the middle of a world war, the philosophy of war still permeates our world.

It’s the tendency to conquer and possess. The tendency to see someone as “the Other” and as less worthy. The tendency to believe in win-lose.

Right now, an army of human battleships is trying to steer this Spaceship Earth. Spoiler alert: it’s not going so well.

Any world worth living in requires the presence of lighthouses. It requires people who, as Gene put it, would “get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more.”

In the spirit of getting things scrambled up, let me clarify that there aren’t really two types of people — one good (lighthouses — the Finnys of the world), one bad (battleships — the Genes of the world).

Life is more complex than that. Almost all of us have both battleship and lighthouse elements within us.

The question isn’t: which type are you? The question is: which type do you want to be?

How to be a human lighthouse

If you want to be a lighthouse, you have to stop believing in the philosophy of war. This doesn’t mean that you can never fight. We’re not Bonobos. We don’t live in some Utopian hippie paradise where nobody would ever consider hurting another person.

Human lighthouses need to understand the philosophy of war so they don’t become a casualty of it. Lighthouses shouldn’t be punching bags or martyrs. They are one of the most valuable things in this world… and you protect your valuables.

In A Separate Peace, Finny didn’t understand the philosophy of war and so he couldn’t spot it in others. When he finally realized that Gene wasn’t the lighthouse he thought he was and was willing to hurt him, it broke his heart.

That’s what often happens when lighthouses don’t know how to protect themselves. They’re the ones who get hurt.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of the most impressive martial artists I can think of are lighthouses. They could kill you without breaking a sweat — but unless they really, really have to, they won’t do anything to hurt you.

Because they understand the philosophy of war, they would never confuse a lighthouse with a battleship. They would never show their soft underbelly to the human equivalent of a wild tiger.

It’s not that lighthouses can never fight. It’s that lighthouses don’t forget who they are when they do. They fight without losing the love in their heart.

And that love transforms their actions. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Acting from love matters because, as Finny said in the book: “When you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.”

Even if it’s a battleship.

After all, Gene did love Finny and that love ultimately transformed him. When Gene finally went to war, he did so without hatred towards the enemy.

Despite being involved in a war, he was no longer a battleship.

That’s the transformative power of love and light.

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Louise is the founder of Leader for Good. She's a former lawyer and academic who moved from Germany to the United States where she started her own business. Today, Louise loves helping her coaching clients and students connect with their passion and purpose. You can find out more about her coaching business at www.workyoulovecoach.com.

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