Calm, within the storm
An older man I knew many years ago, a one-armed fellow who owned a small used bookshop in Berkeley, first told me about finding equanimity within confusion. There were many such shops along Telegraph Avenue in those days, where an eager and boundless curiosity led this young country boy from Sonoma out of the quiet campus and into a teeming world.
It was the Sixties, and revolution occupied the streets. The old man easily understood the pressure and passion of the times. Long before then he had lost his arm in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, fighting a good fight against a viciously corrupt government. He helped me to see the need for composure, despite chaotic circumstances.
He told me to consider the plight of a small boat on an open sea, as a great storm comes up and deep seas and enormous skies blend together with no points of reference, and nothing to steer by. He then reminded me of the meaning of the Christian allegory of Christ walking on water, encouraging faith when all seems hopelessly lost. His disciples were in a small boat in a great storm, and they were terrified. Seeing Him coming toward them through the churning, cascading waters signified their discovery of something secure within to depend upon, when everything beyond is in severe confusion.
Then he told me to consider drinking a cup of tea without it spilling, on board a small boat within turbulent seas. Your safety, he said, and the safety of those you are with, depends upon that clarity of mind, and that consistent steadiness of purpose. Confidence in who you simply are, by knowing yourself deeper than your opinions and your habits, your pride and your shame, is a gradually gained yet most dependable instrument for navigation. There, he said, you will discover at depth what is true for you.
Throughout the Sixties there were many excited discussions and demonstrations as we struggled through enormous social changes. I frequently withdrew to that bookshop to talk with my friend, and he would remind me that we are not that through which we move, but that which moves through us. He would say we are the wave carried forward by the rise and fall of the particles of our lives – those events, and those things we grow attached to, and must in time let go. Every cell of the body, he would say, is replaced over and over throughout life. What matters, he would say, is the course we set through life.
He also told me to care about the people I was with, as much as I cared about the struggles that we shared. “Reach deep within,” he would say, “do that first, and then reach out to others from that true place deep within you. The camaraderie of joining in a movement is galvanized, he would say, by the recognition of another’s concerns and needs as further examples of your own. A movement, he reminded me, can never be stagnant; and, it is constantly refreshed by a fellowship based upon remembering what is true.
Be with them, he said, and pay attention. It’s not for you to advise them, thinking your wisdom will lift others out of their ignorance. They are not ignorant, they are simply in another place than you happen to be. Join them there, where they are; and understand their concerns, rather than impose your own upon them – for their concerns will prove to be, ultimately, much like your own. Speak to that, and listen to them closely. Companionship is what they need, and what you need as well.
I heard what he said each time I visited, not as advice but as a reminder of something I already vaguely knew yet didn’t quite understand. I found myself returning to his shop again and again, to steady my way throughout that amazing, tumultuous decade in Berkeley. Each time, he would send me back out into the hectic streets of the world, reinvigorated and eager to share the work toward the vision we were all struggling to achieve.
The great firestorm of last October is sadly only one of many great disasters coming upon us now, but we know we have learned how to recover. We survived that catastrophe, and witnessed our strength as well as our vulnerability. We drew together as a community, and responded to the needs of one another. We reached deep into ourselves, and reached out to comfort one another. And so, we found comfort for ourselves – and a calm within the storms that we must yet endure.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.