When I was in therapy, my therapist had me do these visualization exercises to help settle my mind and calm my anxiety. He had me choose a place, somewhere I would always want to go, where I could find a bit of peace. That place was always the beach. Specifically, a beach I’d been to in high school: Fort Walton Beach, Florida. The water was so blue, the sand clean and pristinely white. In my visualizations, it would be a cloudy, cold day and the beach would be empty. I’d find myself sitting in the sand, my feet bare and my pants rolled up to my knees, staring out at the ocean as I put my hands in the pockets of my hooded sweater. I’d have to imagine the feel of the sand against the skin of my feet, feel the wind on my face and smell the salt in the air. And eventually, when I was ready, I’d stand and walk out into the edge of the surf, feeling my feet sink into the wet sand as the waves drew back and the rush of chilled water against my ankles as they rolled in. And then, again when I was ready, I’d turn to one side and start walking.
I still do this from time to time, usually to calm my mind when I can’t get to sleep. It’s always been a good way to soothe myself when I’m upset, to focus when it seems like I can’t, to think those thoughts that can’t be expressed in words.
The only thing that works better is the real thing.
I went to the beach yesterday. Considering I live only an hour from it, I make it down there a lot less often than I’d like; this is only the second time I’ve been this year. And while it was the murky waters and brown, seaweed covered sand of Surfside, it was the beach—my favorite place in the world.
To be honest, I almost didn’t go. I was angry. Anger is not an emotion I handle well; it’s not one I experience often. I have a long fuse, and it takes quite a bit to get past my rationality and even my compassion and sensitivity before I’ll become really and truly angry. But one person’s inconsiderate actions—unknowing and unintentional, but inconsiderate just the same—had put me there. At last I decided I could either be angry around my apartment all day, or suck it up and go to the beach with my friends and try to have a good time in spite of this anger.
When we got there, after setting up the blanket and cooler and beach umbrella, I left my friends for my traditional walk at the edge of the surf. Yesterday was cloudy, and the steady breeze coming off the water cool and comfortable. The water itself was still a little cold from this year’s long winter and chilly spring. And while the beach was buzzing with Memorial Day weekend activity, and I was wearing my bathing suit and Bermuda shorts instead of rolled up jeans and a sweater, it was very reminiscent of those long, solitary treks from my visualization exercises. Only instead of simply watching the waves roll in and the clouds passing overhead and the water lapping over my feet, I also got to watch the people.
It was like a lesson in diversity. People of every race had been drawn to the water’s edge; every body type you can image was presented in varying amounts of skin coverage; I passed entire families walking together down the beach, talking and laughing; I passed hipster high school kids with dreadlocks and shocks of pink hair; parasailers, runners, horseback riders; I watched little children dig in the sand or run through the shallow waves with their parents in tow. My silent observation was occasionally broken by other beachgoers commenting on the gorgeous weather or wishing me well. And when I came close to the end of the public beach, where the stilted houses and private beachfront property began, I stopped and turned to look out over the water, to the distant grey-blue of the Gulf and the silver line of clouds meeting it at the horizon.
The ocean always makes me feel so small. It’s like stargazing when I leave the city and go back home; millions upon millions of tiny pinpricks of light coat the sky from one horizon to the other. Each pinprick is a star that could be as big as the sun or bigger, that might have its own planets and its own sentient life lying on their backs and staring up at the sky and wondering just as much as me. The ocean is like a whole other planet right here on earth; so much lives there that we might never have seen, or never will see. In all of humanity’s years of curiosity and exploration, we’ve barely tapped the surface of what the sea holds.
It reminds one so clearly of one’s own insignificance.
But at the same time, yesterday it did the exact opposite.
Standing there staring out at the water, I suddenly remembered a line from Cloud Atlas. As much of a royal mind fuck as that film is, I can’t remember which character it was. But I think now I finally understand it. Someone was trying to belittle this character, to make him feel small and insignificant, to convince him that his actions had no weight in the great scheme of things. They said something to the effect of, “This is nothing more than a drop in the ocean.”
To which the character responded, “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops.”
And I realized in that moment that my anger had dissipated. One person’s unwittingly inconsiderate actions seemed like such a small thing in the wake of that thought: I am only one person out of 7 billion. Countless billions have lived and died on this earth before me, and countless more will come after. I am one tiny pinprick of light in the night sky.
But I am not insignificant. I still intend to talk to this person when the time is right, to let them know how I felt following their actions and ask that they try not to repeat them, because I am a human being that deserves to be treated with care and respect. I may only be one tiny pinprick of light in the night sky, but each of those pinpricks, when you get close, becomes a sun.
Tolkien teaches us that even the smallest person can change the world.
Dr. Who said in 900 years, he’d never met a single person who wasn’t important.
What are we all but drops of water in an ocean? And what is an ocean but a multitude of drops?
What is the human race but a multitude of souls?
I turned from the water and walked back down the beach to my friends.