By Lack of Stillness

In the absence of certainty, the steps I have not yet taken become to me a potential curse. The words I have not yet spoken rest beside fear at the back of my tongue, anxiously awaiting their delivery. I speak, at times, without knowing. I step, at times, blindly. I am, at times, lost.

When the lake appeared I was at first relieved to have a bearing. I had awoken at dawn after hiking 35 kilometers the day before. I passed through several flooded sections of trail, ate little in an effort to cover as much ground as possible, and spent the night waking periodically to remove ticks from my body and listen to the sounds of beasts outside my tent. When the lake appeared the following day I was relieved to have a bearing but in the same moment my relief gave way to the realization that I was on the wrong side of it. I had already hiked five kilometers outside of my way along an old trail that was overgrown and in some places no longer visible. I stood on the rocks high above the lake and the feeling of exhaustion became emotional. I looked across to the place I was supposed to be. I looked ahead, wondering if I should stay my course, or double back, or cut a new path. I was seventeen and alone and I did not know what to do.

Knowing that I am on a path is not the same as knowing that I am where I belong. There are many days when my steps are uncertain and many days when my uncertainty prevents me from taking any steps at all. Too often I have held my tongue or held my step, worrying that to chose one path, or one perspective, is to forsake another. In high school a teacher once told me that each path precludes all other paths available in that moment. I remember resisting this when he said it. I may have even openly disagreed with him. I was then preparing for infinite possibilities. I was then of the perspective that I could make any choice, and that every path could lead me back to any other path. I was then certain that following any choice, there would always be the opportunity to choose differently.

Time passes and I cannot say whether it passes slowly or quickly. It moves like lightening and yet is static in its infiniteness. A nanosecond is of minimal difference to an eon when considering the infinite breadth of time. Time is infinitely expandable and infinitely divisible. We experience a moment of it, but if every moment is infinite, do we not then experience it all? Are we not then a part of eternity? And being a part of eternity, are we not then ourselves eternal?

Our understanding of the decisions we make is bound to our understanding of time. There is something restrictive about both. Time passes and the past immediately becomes lost to us. We have only the present into which we can reach our hands to touch and to mold our experiences. It is only in the present that we can speak and act. It is only now that we can choose. The decisions we have already made are lost to us. They are no longer a part of the present, though the outcomes of those decisions may be. And it is because of this that I am so often arrested by my uncertainty. It is because of this that I so often hold my tongue.

There comes a moment when a decision must be made. Something must be said, or a step must be taken, and when that moment arrives it may not always arrive in the hands of certainty. There is a difference between belief and knowing. There is a difference between doubt and denial. When I pass the threshold of uncertainty, I do not necessarily leave doubt behind. When I speak, I do not necessarily speak with absolute conviction. In these moments, I believe in my words and my actions but I do not always know that they are right. Were I to allow this unknowing, or this doubt, to rule me, I would remain silent and still. I would do nothing.

Like Frost, contemplating the two roads in the yellow wood, I have often remained still not for fear that the path I was about to follow would lead to some great peril, but knowing that there would always be the other path, the one I did not take. In his poem, Frost approaches the final, familiar words by first saying, “I shall be telling this with a sigh…” He projects into the future his anticipation of regret and by doing so imbues his decision with doubt. He scribes a whisper in the air to haunt his steps with the illusion of greener grass and thereby limits his experience of the present.

There is value in stillness and silence. There is something deeply good about it. When we remain in quiet contemplation, when we meditate on a possible action or word, we are able to bolster our resolve while simultaneously releasing our expectations. In this posture our stillness is paradoxically dynamic as our interiority moves and shifts in response to the mutterings of our will. When we have taken the time to make a decision, we can release ourselves from the haunting whispers of regret. We can experience the path we are on as the only path. We can speak and act with a deep knowing that dismisses all doubt.

There is a shadow to stillness and silence, and I have often sat waiting beneath it. Time passes and the decision goes unmade, or the intention goes unfulfilled. When fear, rather than contemplation, holds us, our stillness becomes one of inactivity. We are no longer being contemplative. We are being idle. In idleness, we are afraid to speak, not because we are afraid that we might say something stupid, or say something wrong, but that we might say something so deeply true that we will demand something profound of ourselves, and those around us. We are afraid of stepping forward into the truth we deeply believe in. We are afraid to take that step or say that word.

There are days when I wonder about the paths I have chosen, and the words I have said. None can be retracted, and neither can the moments of their conception be returned to and altered. I sit down to write and there is at times a reluctance knowing that once offered my words are free from me. They become their own beings, for a moment, and are then relinquished to those willing to read them. They are claimed and taken. They become so far from me that I can do nothing to change them. Our decisions are like this. We offer them to those around us, to the universe, to God, and they are no longer ours. In that moment they become lost to us.

I followed the path a short ways through the woods before reaching an impassable river. I was on the wrong side of the lake and the only way to correct my course was to go to the place I wanted to be. I followed the unworn path and veered toward the lake. I stepped into the water. For two hours I walked through along the shoreline, feeling the peace of the lake and forgetting the moment of my indecision. I took my slow steps and felt both relief and certainty in the water that had, by then, filled my boots. The discomfort was irrelevant. The importance and the acceptance resided in my resolve.

Arrested by our fears we find ourselves in unnatural stillness and silence, which, touched by our passivity, can then endure for years. We stand upon the rocks, peering across the lake to the place we want to be, and the distance and our feelings of separation overwhelm us, but our steps are taken one at a time. No distance is beyond our reach. We need not feel overwhelmed by the gravity of our decisions, nor by the myriad alternatives we must release. There is only the place where our feet rest and, in our immediacy, the place where our feet will rest next. Decide and see then the place where you stand. Listen then to the words you have spoken. They are now.

-C

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2 comments

  1. What comes to mind: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” That saying (attributed to the Chinese) often came to mind when my friend and I were hiking the Bruce Trail, a journey of 786 km or fairly rough terrain. It took us about 20 months to complete, doing one weekend a month! It is kind of like moving the mountain, one bucket at a time. If this generation doesn’t finish the job, the next, or the next after that, will do so. Of course, this way of thinking would not lead to the invention of massive earth moving machines. For example, to work on a road building project,(or the Great Wall of China) and know that your father and grandfather had worked on it as well, invests a tremendous sense of dignity and pride in the project. I remember Highway #27 going to Aberdeen, Saskatchewan, and hearing my dad say that when he was young he worked on a crew building that road, using horses. I felt a sense of awe when he said that, and I think he felt a little of that as well, just to be driving on it. (This may have little bearing on your points, but it is what come to mind!)

    1. I like that. Thanks Doug. I remember recently reading about an aboriginal belief in stewardship of the earth that asks us to consider how are choices now will impact not only the next generation but many generations to come. I forget the exact number that was given, but the principle is profound and deeply important. The choices we make now are carried forward. We pass them along. Thanks for commenting.

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