A sailing ship near shore is a nervous thing. We may think that being near land offers refuge if we need it, but harbour entrances can be narrow and treacherous, and the rest of the shore is made of rocks and reefs and sandbars all waiting to take the hull out from under us. They demand constant vigilance. Keeping to the coast is false comfort.
What a ship needs is sea room, deep open water. The ocean may seem vast and unknown, but vastness has its own safety. It’s the safety of being unimpeded and unbounded, free from reference points, free to see as far as the horizon and have the horizon mirror back to us what we know is true.
For some of us this kind of space can be unsettling. But without it our experience is narrow and linear, and filled with nervous comforts.
For those of us who don’t get to go to sea, who are cast adrift on the dirt, we find our sea room when we give up knowing what we’re going to think about: in the shower, walking to a meeting, lying on the couch with a cat. We find it sitting with a friend when the conversation runs out and we’re comfortable enough to enjoy each other in silence. We find it perhaps in our morning meditation, or when we crest a hill in our car and see the horizon. Then our car drops down the hill into traffic, and we’re sailing the coast once again. But if we don’t get a glimpse of the horizon now and then, the vigilance wears us out, and we forget to look up.
Sometimes we find some sea room and ignore it, lying on the couch with the cat and our financial projections, cresting the hill and seeing only the argument with our friend. The rocks and shoals feel familiar, the horizon may not.
But as Herman Melville said, “You must have plenty of sea room to tell the truth in.”