The Day At The Beach

Originally taken from Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul.

Experience is a hard teacher, because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards

Vernon Saunder’s Law

Put your troubles in a pocket with a hole in it.

Old Postcard

Not long ago, I came to one of those bleak periods that many of us encounter from time to time, a sudden drastic dip in the graph of living when everything goes stale and flat, energy wanes, enthusiasm dies, The effect on my work was frightening. Every morning I clenched my teeth and muttered: “Today life will take some of its old meaning. You’ve got to break through this thing. You’ve got to.”

But the barren days dragged on, and the paralysis grew worse. The time came when I knew I needed help.

The man I turned to was a doctor. Not a psychiatrist, just a doctor. He was older than I, and under his surface gruffness lay great wisdom and experience. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” I told him miserably, “but I just seem to have come to a dead end. Can you help me?”

“I don’t know,” he said slowly. He made a tent of his fingers, and gazed at me thoughtfully for a long while. Then, abruptly, he asked, “Where were you happiest as a child?”

“As a child?” I echoed. “Why, at the beach, I suppose. We had a summer cottage there. We all loved it.”

He looked out the window and watched the October leaves sifting down. “Are you capable of following instructions for a single day?”

“I think so,” I said, ready to try anything.

“All right. Here’s what I want you to do.”

He told me to drive to the beach alone the following morning, arriving no later than nine o’clock. I could take some lunch, but I was not to read, write, listen to the radio or talk to anyone. “In addition,” he said, “I’ll give you a prescription to be taken every three hours.”

He tore off four prescription blanks, wrote a few words on each, folded them, numbered them and handed them to me. “Take these at nine, twelve, three and six.”

“Are you serious?” I asked

He gave me a short honk of laughter. “You won’t think I’m joking when you see my bill!”

The next morning, with little faith, I drove to the beach. It was lonely, all right. A northeaster was blowing; the sea looked gray and angry. I sat in the car, the whole day stretching emptily before me. Then I took out the first of the folded slips of paper. On it was written: Listen carefully.

I stared at the two words. Why, I thought,  the man must be mad. He had ruled out music and newscasts and human conversation. What else was there?

I raised my head and listened. There were no sounds but the steady roar of the sea, the croaking cry of a seagull, the drone of some aircraft overhead. All these sounds were familiar.

I got out of the car. A gust of wind slammed the door with a sudden clap of sound. Was I supposed, I asked myself, to listen carefully to things like that?

I climbed a dune and looked out over the deserted beach. Here the sea bellowed so loudly that all other sounds were lost. And yet, I thought suddenly, there must be sounds beneath sounds – the soft rasps of drifting sand , the tiny wind-whisperings in the dune grasses – if the listener got close enough to hear them.

Impulsively, I ducked down and, feeling fairly ridiculous, thrust my head into a clump of seaweed. Here I made a discovery: If you listen intently, there is a fractional  moment in which everything pauses, , waiting. In that instant of stillness, the racing thoughts halt. The mind rests.

I went back to the car and slid behind the wheel. Listen carefully. As I listened again to the deep growl of t he sea, I found myself thinking about the white-fanged fury of its storms. Then I realized I was thinking about things bigger than myself – and there was relief in that

Even so, the morning passed slowly.  The habit of hurling myself at a problem was so strong that I felt lost without it.

By noon the wind had swept the clouds out of the sky, and the sea had a hard, polished and merry sparkle. I unfolded the second “prescription.” And again I sat there, half-amused and half-exasperated. Three words this time: Try reaching back.

Back to what? To the past, obviously. But why, when all my worries concerned the present or the future?

I left the car and started tramping reflectively along the dunes. The doctor had sent me to the beach because it was a place of happy memories. Maybe that was what I was supposed to reach for – the wealth of happiness that lay half-forgotten behind me.

I decided to work on these vague impressions as a painter would, retouching the colors, strengthening the outlines. I would choose specific incidents and recapture as many details as possible. I would visualize people complete with dress and gestures. I would listen (carefully) for the exact sound of their voices, the echo of their laughter.

The tide was going out now, but there was still thunder in the surf. So I chose to go back twenty years to the last fishing trip I made with my younger brother. He had died during World War II, but I found that I closed my eyes and really tried, I could see him with amazing vividness, even the humor and eagerness in his eyes.

In fact, I saw it all: the ivory scimitar of beach where we fished, the eastern sky smeared with sunrise, the great roller creaming in, stately and slow. I felt the backwash swirl warm around my knees, saw the sudden arc of my brother’s rod as he struck a fish, heard his exultant yell. Piece by piece I rebuilt it, clear and unchanged under the transparent  varnish of time. Then it was gone.

I sat up slowly. Try reaching back. Happy people were usually assured, confident people. If, then, you deliberately reached back and touched happiness, might there not be released little flashes of power, tiny sources of strength?

This second period of the day went more quickly. As the sun began its long slant down the sky, my mind ranged eagerly through the past, reliving some episodes, uncovering others that had been completely forgotten. Across all the years, I remembered events, and knew from the sudden glow of warmth that no kindness is ever wasted, or ever completely lost.

But I was not prepared for the next one. This time the three words were not a gentle suggestion. They sounded more like a command. Reexamine your motives.

My first reaction was purely defensive. There’s nothing wrong with my motives,I said to myself. I want to be successful – who doesn’t? I want to have a certain amount of recognition, but so does everybody. I want more security than I’ve got -- and why not?

Maybe, said a small voice somewhere inside my head, those motives aren’t good enough. Maybe that’s the reason the wheels have stopped going around.

I picked up a handful of sand and let it stream between my fingers. In the past, whenever my work went well, there had always been something spontaneous about it, something uncontrived, something free. Lately it had been calculated, competent – and dead. Why? Because I had been looking past the job itself to the rewards I hoped it would bring. The work had ceased to be an end in itself. It had become a means to make money, pay bills. The sens
e of giving something, of helping people, of making a contribution, had been lost in a frantic clutch of security.

In a flash of certainty, I saw that if one’s motives are wrong, nothing can be right. It makes no difference whether you are a mailman, a hairdresser, an insurance salesman, a stay-at-home mom or dad – whatever. As long as you feel you are serving others, you do the job well. When you are concerned only with helping yourself, you do it less well.  This is a law as inexorable as gravity.

For a long time, I sat there. Far out on the bar I heard the murmur of the surf change to a hollow roar as the tide turned. Behind me the spears of light were almost horizontal. My time at the beach had almost run out, and I felt a grudging admiration for the doctor and the “prescriptions” he had so casually and cunningly devised.  I saw, now, that in them was a therapeutic progression that might well be valuable to anyone facing any difficulty.

Listen carefully: To calm a frantic mind, slow it down, shift the focus from inner problems to outer things.

Try reaching back: Since the human mind can hold but one idea at a time, you blot out present worry when you touch the happiness of the past.

Reexamine your motives: This was the hard core of the “treatment.” This challenge was to reappraise, to being one’s motives into alignment with ones’ capabilities and conscience. But the mind muse be clear and receptive to do this – Hence the six hours of quiet that went before.

The western sky was a blaze of crimson as I took out the the last slip of paper. Six words this time. I walked slowly out on the beach. A few yards below the high-water make I stopped and read the words again: Write your troubles on the sand.

I let the paper blow away, reached down and picked up a fragment of shell. Kneeling there under the vault of the sky, I wrote several words on the sand, one above the other. Then I walked away, and I did not look back. I had written my troubles on the sand. And the tide was coming in.

Arthur Gordon

Submitted by Wayne W. Hinckley