When we find each other stranded, the exercise of compassion demands that we interrupt our lives to return each other to our own true nature
Eighteen years ago, I encountered a teaching moment while driving the coast of California. And yesterday, I encountered a twin teaching moment, less directly, through the news, all the way from Australia. Today, I see how they go together. One was waiting like a seed in my consciousness for the other to arrive, once I’d tumbled through years of slow living.
The first teaching startled me while I was driving north of Monterey on California Highway 1 in late October 1998. I was aching and vulnerable, feeling far from home, when, through the harsh onshore wind, I saw a large rock surrounded by the rough, churned-up sea. The rock was covered with all kinds of animals: willets, gulls, cormorants, sea lions, seals, pelicans, otters. All had found refuge from the hammering of the sea: climbing, winging, hauling themselves onto the rock; leaning into each other, lying on each other; finding this rock-oasis of wind and sun; too tired once on the rock to fight or be territorial; each having been wrung out by the pounding of the wet hours.
I realized this is how we make our way, how we find each other. Every survivor, regardless of what they survive, knows the hammering of the sea, and the rock we find refuge on is an exposed place where we finally accept each other, too tired from swimming to think any longer about territories, too tired to talk except through simple touch.
The wellness group I attended weekly during my cancer journey was such a rock. The meeting rooms of recovery are such a rock. The thousand quiet rooms of therapy are such a rock. For those who have suffered, tolerance is not a political position, or even a principle. For those of us who have been tossed out of the storm, who have hauled ourselves into the sun, anything exhausted beside us is family.
The hard gift of any storm is that when we’re too exhausted to uphold our differences, there’s room enough for everyone. When I can accept what we have in common over what sets us apart, somehow my deepest self is mysteriously affirmed and I begin to heal. There is some inexplicable braid of all our troubles and all our dreams that will not snap, no matter the storm. Yet we resist folding into each other until the disturbance exhausts us. We fear the worst we have to offer, when the best is close at hand.
The second teaching stopped me, just yesterday, while drinking coffee in the morning and watching the news. Every year pilot whales swim in pods through the Bass Strait, which separates Tasmania and southern Australia. They migrate to and from the polar waters. But yesterday, 64 long-finned pilots stranded themselves on a stretch of Anthony’s Beach.
The sight of these mountainous creatures—the ocean pooling along their slick and heavy sides—stopped everyone. Within an hour, 50 volunteers were pulling slings beneath their soft whale bellies, trying to drag them back into the sea. Some spent the night pouring water on their ancient faces. They saved 11.
What made these whales strand themselves? What made strangers rub water onto their mammoth backs? It is as much our destiny to swim with no end as it is to get stuck, as it is to return each other to the deep.
The whole struggle of making our way, together and alone, is carried in this poignant, unstoppable migration, year after year. While we all have a path we must follow, we will all be beached at one time or another. And when we find each other stranded, the exercise of compassion demands that we interrupt our lives to return each other to our own true nature—to our God-given element.
I have not been able to quiet these twin lessons from the sea: When we’re too exhausted to uphold our differences, there’s room enough for everyone. And when we find each other stranded, we must interrupt our lives to return each other to the deep.
We are all en route. We are all exhausted. We are all beached. We are all making our way in this unstoppable migration in which the destination is no one place, but rather the quality of heart we finally reveal in each other’s presence.
Questions to Walk With
- In your journal, describe a time when you were exhausted enough to relate more fully to others. What did you learn from this experience?
- In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell the story of a time when you interrupted your life to help someone back into their own. How did getting involved this way affect you?