Summer 2011 #4
Days on end at the beach sounds like bliss, no? We have been perched in luxury, my Favourite Wife and I, living at ease in the most wonderful of homes just a stone’s throw from sand, rock-pools and surf. And a fairly lazy throw at that! This idyllic setting could only be improved on by adding some fine food, some good conversation, some old friends, and some family. Well, we had all that too! Yet, amidst all this bliss, in crept an enemy of old, pitching for a fight.
My adversary began his attack, as always, in a benign and subtle manner; presenting himself in a positive guise. I’ve never ridden a surf board in my life (there’s a regret!) but I am mesmerised by the sets rolling in and the riders doing their best. Parked on the deck with good old Bugger (yes, B1!), binoculars reveal the concentration collecting on tanned faces as the waves build. I can also trace my Favourite Wife on her frequent walks along the length of the golden crescent of sand, eyes peeled for that elusive, perfect shell. From dawn till after dusk the beach breaths in and out. The early morning joggers; the keen surfers catching a wave or two before the real work of the day begins; the life-guards staking out the safe and the perilous zones of surf; the families arriving to peg out their patch of virgin sand; the serious surfers who appear according to tide, not time, surveying the break with a distant, languid stare; the crowd of noon-day sun-seekers, young and old; and late in the day the walkers, briskly striding out the sunset, mirrored pink in wet-sand arcs.
Everyone healthy, tanned, and fit. Everyone energetic and
Years ago I attended an astonishing open-air bird show at Taronga Zoo. Sitting in a spectacular, steep amphitheatre overlooking Sydney Harbour, the khaki clad zoo-keeper would announce a particular bird of prey and before the words had left her mouth a giant avian predator would swoop startlingly from behind us, almost grazing our scalps with its very real talons. It was electrifying! My beach-side antagonist employed a similar tactic: just when I was most engrossed, serenely enjoying the sandy panorama and the action of the beach, in flew jealousy, claws and beak drawn with deadly intent. I’d like to say I’d never met this foe before, but that would not be true. Temptation is an individual concern: to some people chocolate is an addictive compulsion, a whole row is never enough! I can easily stop at one square, but not so with jealousy. For me an idle envious thought is never enough, I take the whole block.
Within a few hours I was no longer content to covet the able bodies of a handful of surfers; not me! I had begun to squint with green eyes at beach patrons as a class, then at all the fortunate people who could drive their cars to the beach, then at all the citizens walking around on two legs in the suburbs behind the beach, and before long I was engrossed in envious contempt for the entire population of the eastern seaboard! It takes commitment to resent seventeen million people.
Jealousy distilled is the essence of ingratitude: an endemic discontent with the life I have been given. Jealousy is lazy. It takes no effort whatsoever for me to descend into a slough of self pity; for me it is the obvious destination of an undisciplined train of thought. Gratitude, conversely, is deliberate. Gratitude requires restraint and application; but thankfully it has the almost miraculous quality of self-propulsion. Gratitude builds up its own head of steam; once initiated it gains momentum and with just a modest nudge now and then it rolls over every bitterness in its path. But I don’t think I could ever suggest ‘gratitude’ as the solution to another man’s woes. It’s simply too trite to say, “Just be grateful for what you’ve got”. I don’t presume to know another life. Gratitude also needs a recipient: a nebulous thankfulness to the universe as a whole would not work for me. It’s a purely personal observation, one in which I take no pride, but I have never felt any lack of tangible things in my world for which I can be immensely grateful; and I am doubly thankful to know the One from whom I believe they come.
Inside this same house is a very old Bible. More than old, it’s antique. When Captain Cook first visited this coast and found safe harbour just a few miles south, this bible was already well over a century old. I guess it has witnessed the comings and goings of a dozen generations at least, and at the time of its printing I figure the number of my ancestors at over four thousand souls! That puts perspective on life! To recognise that humanity is somewhat bigger than my meagre experience of it is a helpful tonic for my rather obviously self centred malaise of envy. Individuality seems a little overstated in the modern world; even if I don’t still ride a surf board (… which I never did!) there is a sense in which ‘we’ still do. When I express gratitude I look up and away from myself. The old, old book also hints at the momentary nature of this life. It was good while it lasted, but the best is yet to come.