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All Things are Passing…… August 15, 2006

Posted by jaldenh in James Carroll.
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Sharing the oceanic feeling

“LET NOTHING disturb thee, nothing affright thee.” This verse of the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila pops into your mind as you stare out at the ocean horizon. In the tranquility of an August afternoon at the beach, the hatch to the attic of free association blows open. You welcome the saint’s benign expression as a contented sigh of the unconscious. Unfortunately, the next line of Teresa’s classic exhortation trails along. “All things are passing,” she adds, as if universal transience is not itself the primal source of disturbance and fright.

“Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee. All things are passing.”

You work to get this straight. Be not afraid because nothing lasts. But what are you afraid of if not that? Alas, the ocean’s edge is not the place for such a rumination. Wave after wave slides up the sandy slope toward your chair, each wave its own masterpiece of shape and dynamism. The incoming water sparks perceptions of the fluid perfection of the cresting action. Some distant current of wind or tide pushed through the sea for hundreds of miles — thousands? — only to break upon the sand at your feet. The wave as such ceases to exist, but its energy thrives, withdrawing into its own reversal. Now the gathered momentum will push back to some opposite shore, where another wave will crest and break, and another ruminator will mark the magnificent insignificance of all things passing.

Or is this awareness precisely what you come to the beach in search of? There is an inevitable hypnosis in watching the waves arrive and depart, and, equally inevitable, there is a confrontation with the fact that this flowing and ebbing goes on with sublime indifference to your every measure of time or meaning. How long has this been going on? And what could ever stop it? Normal notions of past and future simply do not apply at the water’s edge, which makes your prevailing obsession with yesterday and tomorrow seem petty, all at once. The present is your only absolute, but the radical transience of the waves makes you see that the present, too, is an act of your imagination. The boundlessness of the ocean is a sacrament of timelessness.

“Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee.” In urging calm upon you, St. Teresa knows that you are disturbed and afraid. Indeed, her words of reassurance are themselves an acknowledgment of your unsettled state. But then comes her stark declaration that what you thought was the problem — “All things are passing” — is the solution. A sense of the transience of time is a liberation from it, just as perceptions of the infinite reach of the ocean offer release from the normal constraints of walls and borders. Why else does your gaze here at the beach constantly shift from the waves just beyond your feet to the unbroken horizon? Your free association takes you suddenly to Freud — and why not, since he defined it? But didn’t he define this state of being, too? “Oceanic feeling” — the swollen cavity inside your breast; the hollow lump in your throat; infinity transformed from an ultimate abstraction to this intense emotion; the abyss within; the certain knowledge that you were made for more than the sum of your days. You were made for this.

Human beings are the creatures who cluster together at the beach in the summer, sitting in their sand-collecting nylon slings, under their riotous umbrellas, in their unbecoming bathing suits, close enough to one another to catch the aroma of a stranger’s sunblock. The cluster is half the point, which is why humans like, on arriving, to find the parking lot mostly full. Normal rules of personal space are suspended at the beach. And you — why do you love being in this crowd if not for contemplation that is also communal? At the ocean’s edge, watching the waves and staring out at the horizon, you have the most intensely private sensation of all, becoming the ocean. But the sensation is the more precious for being shared.

In truth, despite St. Teresa, you are disturbed and affrighted always. How could you be otherwise, the world being what it is? But even if the world were as you wish — peace, justice, healthy planet, well-fed children — there would still be the threat of time. The passing of all that you love. That all things are passing — for this knowledge you come to the ocean — is why you love them.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.  

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
 

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