Imagine yourself effortlessly floating on your back in a warm sea, perfectly calm and content. The vague sound of the surf is just audible, a soothing husssh in your ear; the sky above is a deep and soothing blue streaked with white and golden cloud. The day is perfect. It is as if you have been here from eternity. You are at ease and at peace.
You turn your head gently to one side; something catches your eye among the sparkles on the water. You focus on its movement, and it becomes clear: about twenty feet away from your face, and twice as big as your face, the obvious and unmistakable curve of a dorsal fin. Shark. Huge. Shark.
If you are like me, it doesn’t even register in words. It’s a electro-chemical bolt of lightning through your chest. Get out, get out, fuck, fuck get OUT GET OUT—MY GOD GET OUT NOW , GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT!!!!
I had gone through an excruciating break-up. My life, which during the affair had been up-ended in delirium and zero-gravity awe, had suddenly short-circuited. It had happened in about two days, a vertigo-making implosion that I’d helped precipitate without being able to stop myself, always thinking the next thing I did would fix everything, always being sickeningly wrong, until I was more abjectly undone than I would have thought possible. My ego had been pulped; the regret and utter incapacity I felt left me stupid and barely communicative. Each evening, after barely pretending to work all day, I limped home feeling like I had been run over in the street. Every muscle was tightened into a grimace of denial and fear. I ran the hottest bath the plumbing would produce and soaked for hours, trying to induce the slightest relaxation.
After a week or two or seven of this, something slightly more normal reasserted itself. Slowly and inconsistently at first, I began to be able to think again. I was sitting on the bus one day, trying helplessly for the nth time to go over what had happened. I believed then and I believe now that, corniness or sentimentality notwithstanding, love is the experience which bestows our lives with meaning. The hallmark-card sense of this does not make it false. I was reflecting on this when it occurred to me that, nonetheless, it is obviously only half the story. It was so obvious as to be an algorithm: If you love, you will also, and inevitably, hurt and be hurt. It’s a pop song, it’s a Hallmark card, it’s a stupid slogan, and it’s true. If and insofar as you love, you will cause the one you love pain, great pain, probably the worst pain, and you will be caused it, tipped as I had been into one of the outer levels of Hell. Which means: the thing that makes life worth living is the same thing that makes life Hell. Not as a corollary; as an identity.
In another mood I might have been struck by this as if it were a kind of thought-provoking paradox, a sparkly toy to amuse the mind. That wasn’t how I felt. It struck me in my stomach, with the same hammer-force as if I had realized there was a shark in the water: GET OUT GET OUT NOW FUCK FUCK GET OUT! It wasn’t the fear (or reality) of emotional pain, but the identity of the meaning-bestowing and Hell-making, that was so shockingly intolerable, un-processable. I can’t live here. Unacceptable. I wanted and desperately needed to leap physically, in a direction perpendicular to the human condition, out of the world.
Many months passed, turning into a year and two years. I meditated on this strange identity. I knew very well that the notion of “leaping out” was nonsensical. “The thought of suicide”, Nietzsche remarked, gets a man through many a difficult night, and I have often thought that if I really felt I had cause to complain, well, I knew where the Exit door was -- but in truth I don’t believe that there is an Exit, not like that. The shark is real, and the water is real; what isn’t real is escape. You can despair, or you can make friends with the shark. There is no getting out of the water, I thought.
This little improvised koan became the object of much meditation. It appeared on my screen-saver, trailing across in (of course) red.
For a while, I thought I had solved it. What had actually happened, though, was that I had mistakenly elided a crucial detail, and in so doing I had tamed the shocking truth into a maxim; I had in fact Hallmark-ised it. Little by little, I began to lose grasp of the brute insight that had sparked the koan. I had slowly come to identify the shark with the suffering occasioned by love, instead of the fact that it is love which causes and undergoes suffering. The shark is the necessary coincidence of the occasion of suffering with the site of meaning. But this is confusing and difficult to keep firmly before the mind. I slid into a lazy if still twitchy distraction, content with having reached a comfortable resting-place.
Occasionally, as the months turned into years and then into a decade, I did remember the full koan. I meditated on it a great deal when I fell in love again; when I got married, it wove its way between the lines of the vows my wife and I wrote. But in fact, usually the water is warm and comfortable, or else there’s a lot of swimming to do and I forget.
Two months ago my father died after a brief and unexpected illness. I made it to his bedside for the last eighteen hours of his life. He was sedated and unconscious, and although I tell myself that he could hear what we said, or at least knew we were there, I do not know. Towards the end, as his heart was failing, it seemed to me that its rate would slow and it would slide into a non-sinus rhythm as long as I kept speaking to him. My mother, albeit exhausted from being awake for two nights in a row, had managed to get a blessed hour of sleep and was able to feel present and undistracted. As she held his hand and told him, “It’s all right, honey; we love you. You can go,” I was watching his heart monitor and watched his heart rate fall to zero immediately. (My sister noted at the funeral that my father always waited for my mother.) Although this is the sort of thing that calls to mind the phrase “anecdotal evidence,” in the end it is that sort of evidence of which our experience is made.
My mother went home. She thought she would fall asleep immediately. But it wasn’t what happened. Instead, she said, when she began to cry, she couldn’t stop. “It was like a banshee wail. It kept coming and coming. It was terrifying.” The cry went through her like a hailstorm. The next day, when she told me about it, she recalled a Buddhist friend’s husband’s funeral; nothing in my mother’s Mormon background had readied her for the fifteen-minute long ritual wail her friend made. My mother looked into my eye and said, “I was a good Buddhist yesterday.” Afterwards, she had looked in the mirror, frightened by her own grief-reddened face; but then she did sleep, and after she awoke, there was a great calm. “I’ve cried since then, but not like that,” she told me. “There’s a widow’s cry. It’s not like any other cry. I’ve cried it.”
And with that I felt the shark brush by my side.