While looking at fish in a current: “He wondered what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place. Pretty similar to his own, he decided.” -Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic
I’ve wondered about this (and struggled with this) for a long time, so it’s nice to hear Pratchett come out and say it. Staying in place often takes a lot of swimming. That’s obvious with our bodies: we don’t eat and think, “I’ll never have to do that again.” We don’t drink and say, “Well, now I’ve dealt with thirst.” We expect the work to return, day after day. Perhaps we should expect the same thing in our emotional lives.
I used to want joy to be a kind of trophy, a possession, a mythic beast I could hunt with a pokey stick and put on my wall. I think I killed a fair amount of joy that way. Luckily joy is a magic thing: sooner or later I woke up and found that the joy I’d caught wasn’t on the smoking wrack anymore. The magic beast had come back to life and run back into the forest where it belongs. Joy, self-worth, purpose–these aren’t things to obtain. They run. Our choice is to run with them.
Always swimming could sound tiring. It certainly takes effort, and sometimes I end up feeling like a frantic goldfish. Still, there are different ways to swim. A few weeks ago, I was kicking and hurrying and struggling to stay away from the shallow coral while I watched sea turtles. They were in the same swells: but their swimming was a fluid thing, a part-of-it-all thing. With a few careful turns of their flippers they let the wave carry them back and forth over the coral. Mid swing they bent down to take a bite of algae. They rested, and worked, and ate: and all of that was swimming. The movement of the oceans was part of them–perhaps because they’d accepted that they were only a little part of it.
Effort’s a funny thing. I often feel like I don’t want to spare any of it, or that I’m asked for too much. But if you look at the etymology, “effort” comes from the Latin ex- (“out”) and fortis (“strong, steadfast, spirited”). So effort is the upwelling of our spirit; it is the water we pour into the world from the well of our strength. If that’s true, constant effort doesn’t sound like something to fear. We will always swim to just stay here, but loving is part of that swim. Laughing is part of that swim. Washing dishes is also part of that swim, but whatever we think of the task, we can do it for the love of our family or for the laughter of the water on our hands.
Perhaps the spring of our own spirit is the gift we’re given at birth; perhaps our effort, the water of that spring, is the gift we give back. And the water is there: there to sip, there to share, flowing from our spirit because we are alive.