I’ve joined an artists’ summer small group, where we study and discuss the book of Ecclesiastes, and hopefully let our reflection spring into creative expression. Last week was our first time meeting, and we discussed the first chapter. Below is my response to Ecclesiastes 1:7, entitled “But the Sea is Not Full.”
Lately I’ve been wanting to weep. I’m not sure why, but at a couple of points each day—usually in the evening, or just before bed—there’s a tight swelling in my chest. All the emotions I’d stuffed there for 12 hours decide to show up en masse at the door of my heart, demanding to be let in. I can’t look at them, this rag tag bunch of feelings: self-pity with her one droopy eye, anger’s furrowed brow and clenched fist, confusion looking dopey and befuddled, anxiety wringing her hands and pacing. There’s also wonder and compassion, willowy twins toward the back of the crowd, patient and silent but pleading with big wet eyes to be admitted.
I might open the door a crack, sneer at the crowd with contempt, and slam it again in their faces. I eat some cereal out of the box, by the fistful , or I scroll through the news feed on Facebook for an hour. They go away, eventually, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I just don’t have room for them all—not to mention the fact that wonder always leaves me aching for more, and compassion always demands more of me. It’s more than I can take.
“All the rivers flow into the sea, but the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again.” Ecclesiastes 1:7
It’s never enough. If I open the door, I will not be filled. So I keep it closed—closed to the good, closed to the bad, closed to the beautiful and to the ugly. Those times when I did let the river of wonder flow into me—treading water in the turquoise sea of Cinque Terre, or watching the sun rise out of the ocean on a deserted beach in Australia—it wasn’t enough. The next day, I wanted more. Back home in Southern California, I lay on the beach in Malibu and ache for Cinque Terre. The sea of my heart is never full.
I open myself to streams of pain—loving those who will not love me back, allowing myself to feel something for strangers with haunted faces like open wounds—and the streams never stop rushing in. Anxiety, fear, anger all run from endless springs so that if I let them, they too will never stop—and my heart will never say “enough.”
I collect and hoard and pile and stash: friends, security, compliments, affection, approval. No matter how much I have, I’ll find another corner, a trap door, a cubby to fill. The tide rises and the sea threatens to run past its boundaries, but it always recedes. There is always room for more, because there are always leaks—compassion quickly seeps out when I feel my rights have been violated; but anger can drain a little at the sight of an earnest, snuffling pug on his morning walk.
I’ve gotten clever with building dams, though, and most days I redirect the flow with a series of obstacles—a lot of music and podcasts and general noise, some vegetative time at the computer, lots of scurrying to and fro with errands, cleaning, assignments, social engagements. By the time the rivers get around all of these, their waters are a pitiful trickle that I collect in a small bucket, and it’s that bucket that gets full at the end of the day, when it threatens to spill over into frightened tears as I get ready for bed.
I sit and look down from my window, grim and bitter as a spinster, tracing the pattern of streams winding through the world and dumping into other hearts, other seas that will never be filled. And I wonder, which is my biggest fear—that the rivers will one day dry up and there will no longer be a chance for wonder, or even for heartbreak? Or that my heart really could be filled, that it could burst? Didn’t Jesus say that if we asked the Father, we would have joy like a river overflowing its banks? Didn’t he say that she who believes in him would have rivers of living water flowing from the very depths of her being?
Can the sea become the spring?