The Day at the Beach

How a wise and understanding doctor’s ‘prescription’ helped me regain my sense of purpose.

Arthur Gordon Updated: Dec 9, 2022 15:00:36 IST
2022-12-09T14:56:26+05:30
2022-12-09T15:00:36+05:30
The Day at the Beach Getty Images

Not long ago I entered 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 would clench my teeth and mutter: “Today life will take on some of its old meaning. You’ve got to break through this thing. You’ve got to!”

But the barren days went by, and the paralysis grew worse. The time came when I knew I had to have help. The man I turned to was a doctor. Not a psychiatrist, just a regular doctor. He was older than I, and under his gruffness lay great wisdom and compassion. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” I told him miserably. “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. “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?But the barren days went by, and the paralysis grew worse. The time came when I knew I had to have help.

The man I turned to was a doctor. Not a psychiatrist, just a regular doctor. He was older than I, and under his gruffness lay great wisdom and compassion. “I don’t know what’s wrong,” I told him miserably. “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. “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.

“Okay. 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, noon, three and six.”

“Are you serious?” I asked. Yes, he said, he was. The next morning, with little faith,

I drove to the beach. It was lonely, all right. A northeast wind was blowing; the sea looked grey 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 and 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 I did listen. There were no sounds but the steady roar of the sea, the creaking cry of a gull, the drone of some aircraft high overhead. All were familiar sounds.

I got out of the car. A gust of wind slammed the door with a sudden clap. Am 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 realised suddenly, there must be sounds beneath sounds—the soft rasp of drifting sand, the tiny wind-whisperings in the dune grasses—if the listener got close enough to hear them.

On an impulse I ducked down and, feeling faintly ridiculous, thrust my head into a clump of sea-wheat. Here I made a discovery: If you listen intently, there is a fractional moment in which everything seems to pause, to wait. In that instant of stillness, the racing thoughts halt. For a moment, when you truly listen for something outside yourself, you have to silence the clamorous voices within. 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 the sea, I found myself thinking about the immensity of it, the stupendous rhythms of it, the velvet trap it made for moonlight, the white-fanged fury of its storms.

I thought of the lessons the sea had taught us as children. A certain amount of patience, because you can’t hurry the tides. A great deal of respect, because the sea does not suffer fools gladly. An awareness of the vast and mysterious interdependence of things, because wind and tide and current, calm and squall and hurricane, all combine to determine the paths of the birds above and the fish below. And the cleanness of it all, with every beach swept twice a day by the great broom of the sea.

Sitting there, I realised I was thinking of 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 with- out it. I wistfully eyed the car radio.

By noon the wind had polished the clouds out of the sky, and the sea had a hard, 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 found a sheltered place and lay down on the sun-warmed sand. When I tried to peer into the well of the past, the recollections that came to the surface were happy but not very clear; the faces were faint and faraway, as if I had not thought of them in a long time.

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I decided to experiment, to work on these vague impressions as a painter would, retouching the colours, strengthening the outlines. I would choose specific incidents and recapture as many details as possible. I would visualise people complete with clothing 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 20 years to the last fishing trip I had with my younger brother. (He died in the Pacific during World War II and was buried in the Philippines.) I found now that if I closed my eyes and really tried, I could see him with amazing vividness, even the humour and eagerness in his eyes that far-off morning.

In fact, I could see it all: the ivory scimitar of beach where we were fishing, the eastern sky smeared with sun- rise, the great rollers coming in, stately and slow. I could feel the backwash swirl warm around my knees, see the sudden arc of my brother’s rod as he hooked a fish, hear 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 that not release 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. For example, when I was around 13 and my brother was 10, our father had promised to take us to the circus. But at lunch there was a phone call; some urgent business required him to go downtown. We braced ourselves for disappointment. Then we heard him say, “No, I won’t be there. It’ll have to wait.”

When he came back to the table, my mother smiled. “The circus keeps coming back, you know.” 

By three o’clock the tide was out; the sound of the waves was only a rhythmic whisper, like a giant breathing. I stayed in my sandy nest, feeling relaxed and content—and a little complacent. The doctor’s prescriptions, I thought, were easy to take. 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: “Re-examine your motives.” 

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My first reaction was purely defensive. There’s nothing wrong with my motives, I told myself. I want to be successful—who doesn’t? I want 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 round.

I picked up a handful of sand and let it stream through 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 been merely a means to make money, pay bills. The sense of giving something, of helping people, of making a contribution, had been lost in a frantic clutch at 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 letter carrier, a hairdresser, an insurance salesperson, stay-at-home parent—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 sandbar 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 of value to anyone facing any difficulty.

Listen carefully: To calm the 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 happinesses of the past.

Re-examine your motives: This was the hard core of the ‘treatment,’ this challenge to reappraise, to bring one’s motives into alignment with one’s capabilities and conscience. But the mind must be clear and receptive to do this—hence the six hours of quiet that came first.

The western sky was a blaze of crimson as I took out the last slip of paper. I read six words this time. I walked slowly out on the beach. A few meters below the high-water mark I stopped and read the words again: “Write your worries on the sand.”

I 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.

 

 

 

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