Isn't it strange, knowing one day the people we become are going to fade, but what we create, will survive when we are gone? So even if I just make a fraction of a difference, I'm almost certain, it will have been worth it. —Beth Crowley, Worth It
CW // Strong Language. [ This is a work of fiction. ]
“This can’t go on.”
It was one of those grim moments that mankind confronted every so often. The kind where one would experience a sudden severe drop in enthusiasm for living—where plans would turn stale and dreams became obsolete. Even worse, when the energy waned from the body and joy from the soul dissipated.
Life’s bleakness would soon take effect on Ethan’s work. It was alarming; he was struggling to get by. He shuddered at the thought of the unanswered emails piling up. Each forenoon he would have heart palpitations and tell himself it was going to be the same miserable day. Just another date to tick off his calendar. Every now and then, he would stare into the mirror. He recognised the eyes, but he was frightened of staring too long into it, he feared that they had become the abyss. But yet the mundane days never halted. His anxiety grew worse as they dragged on. Resolutions were dead. Finally the time came when he knew he wanted out.
He had been drinking again, but this time instead of the park bench as he so often did, he found himself slumped on the pavement. Weeds flourished in the broad cracks and brought forth splashes of unwelcome green to the city grey. The cracks on the pavement had certainly seen better days. How much of his unnoticed work’s agony he comprehended, he had not wished to think about, but he was fed up with work. Truthfully, he had enough of life’s unfair treatment towards him.
The brown suit he was wearing had crumpled beyond saving, his tie loosened so much it touched the gravel floor, and as the cold September wind howled, his trepidation grew. People walked past him with no discretion about their disdain, some threw him scowled looks, others threw coins in his face, a mockery of the poor. Ethan didn’t mind either way, for he was more affected by the cold. The frigid air had a way of keeping him in the moment, wicking away body heat faster than it was replaced. It was one of those days when the clothes he wore weren’t enough, when they felt thinner than they were.
His breaths rose in puffs. His arms hugged his body tightly. He didn’t realise then when the tears came out and his voice sobbed uncontrollably. It was strange to him, he had not cried for years. He had been strong enough for his mother when his father passed away; he was in pain but he did not cry. Yet, as he sat on the pavement in contemplation of the situation he was in, that was enough to spill the cup. This was what life had subjected him to. His memories of his youth haunted him, once when his mind was filled with such wonders of excitement, of the things he and his friends would do to change the world, all slowly but surely fizzled out under the wretched condition the generation before named the end of history.
He just wanted someone to listen. In the end, the man he turned to was a stranger. Not anyone he knew nor had he seen before but just a stranger who happened to be sitting beside him. He looked older than Ethan, his clothes were not torn, in fact it was relatively clean but he felt that behind his grey eyes bore great wisdom and experience. The man did not drink, neither did he say anything. He merely stared straight ahead, and saw through the passing cars. “Life’s not working out. I’m sick of living. I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Ethan just rambled to him miserably whilst he fought his tears. “but I can’t find my purpose anymore. I don’t know which road to take anymore. Please, can… can you save me?”
At first the man seemed not to hear him. A long few seconds passed before he turned. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. He tilted his head and looked up at Ethan with caring eyes, making a tent of his fingers before bringing them to chin. He gazed at Ethan thoughtfully for a long while. Then rather promptly, he queried, “Was there a time where you were the happiest as a child?”
“I can’t remember.” Ethan responded quickly. He believed that the man was just playing along with him. Yet to him, also, came moments of doubt and indecision. What if this stranger could be the one? He wiped his tear-stained cheeks, his hands were rough and it felt its harshness on his skin. In the late evening, with a sinking heart, someone was actually listening to his plea. “A time where I was the happiest before…,” Ethan finally regarded the man in silence for a few seconds. “The beach. I was free of worries. It was just the sea and I. I remember seeing the colours in the sky change.” He replied without much hesitation, that was curious to him. It was the only thing he did that he was absolutely certain of.
The stranger then looked at the empty bottles of liquor and watched the moisture take shape on them. A soft smile appeared. “Do you fare well in taking instructions and following them for a day?”
“I believe so,” Ethan replied, prepared to do anything to get him out of his mess. He was used to the daily grind in the office. What harm could a stranger’s instructions bring?
“Very well, young man. Here’s what you have to do.” He leaned in and whispered to Ethan. He carefully instructed Ethan to return to that beach. Alone, no one else but him, in the following morning nine o’clock sharp. “Well, do bring along some packed lunch for yourself. Just remember, you are not allowed to read or write. No pencils or notebooks. And definitely, no communications device. Leave the mobile phone behind and absolutely, you are not to have any human interaction at all cost. You are to be in solitude. Promise me that.” the man then added, “Follow the tasks I’ve given you. Check the time intervals.”
He took a small notebook from under his coat, tore off four pieces of paper and began writing a few words on them. He folded them before he had them handed over to Ethan. Each paper had a time written on them. Nine o’clock. Twelve o’clock. Three o’clock. Six o’clock. The numbers on the papers were as mysterious as the way the peculiar man carried himself.
“Three hours? To check on myself? Like I am on medications?” Ethan asked with raised eyebrows.
He let out a soft chuckle. “You asked me to save you, did you not?”
And so it was on the next morning when Ethan would set out to his destination, a little lost. At last he finally arrived. He could see how lonely the beach looked. Nothing quite like the time he spent in the past. The sea looked gray and aggrieved as the north-east wind blew. He stared into the waves, the whole day stretching emptily before him. There were no buildings nearby and he became more certain that horror lay inside the sea. Intuitively he felt it in his bones, in the dryness of his chapped lips. “This is a mistake,” mumbled Ethan, the real point of his anxiety was now emerging. “Why did I agree to this?” Then he felt in his coat pocket for the first folded paper to follow its directive. “Listen.” was written on it.
Just a single word. He studied that one word. “Listen.”
For fuck’s sake, he thought, why did I bother to asking help from a stranger? The man was probably as drunk as him that night. How many beer bottles did he empty on that pavement? No, he was confident that the man was sober. Questions were running in Ethan’s head. The man had him to exclude communication devices and human interaction. What was there for him to listen to on the beach?
He shoved his troubles along with the paper into his pocket. With a deep sigh, he raised his head and closed his eyes. He decided that he would try to listen. To what, he wasn’t quite sure of it yet. Still, he listened. He strained to hear something, anything. There were no sounds but the riveted roar of the sea and the cry of seagulls. These sounds seemed familiar to him. Just as he was listening, a gust of wind howled at the trees and the leaves reverberated to its voice. He can’t help but to wonder now if all along, life had all these soundscapes, and he was missing out on them. Could it be that there were many more important things to do than just get a job? Could the old man be right?
He climbed a hill of sand looking ruefully out over the secluded beach. These days he was always short of money. From time to time, his mother would send him some funds, but he would return it to her because it was unfit for him to accept such monetary help. But this morning, it would be different for there were no other men but him alone in the sand kingdom. Here, Ethan was a king and the sand was his currency. And here the sea bellowed loudly that all other sounds were lost to show its respect for His Majesty. And yet, it came to his mind suddenly, there had to be sounds beneath sounds—the soft scraping of the sand drifting, the tiny whimsical whisperings of the dune grasses. Perhaps if one got close enough to hear their voices, there could be a story attached to its sound.
Without forethought, he crouched down and, feeling fairly amused, picked up a small seashell from the sand and brought his ear close to it. Here he unearthed that when he paid attention to the sound, there was a fractional moment in which time possibly froze. Everything pauses. It waits upon him. Life is still going on. But it also stops. How strange. In that short time of quiet, his racing thoughts came to a stand still. His anxiety dissipated. His mind rested as he felt his heart beating gently.
In genuine amazement, he gently placed the seashell back in its place, his ears picking up the sound of the sea’s deep growl. He pictured something that would go along with its temper. He found himself imagining the mythical sea creatures he read about in books of his childhood years and chuckled. He was also noticing how his thinking shifted. He was thinking of things bigger than himself—and that brought him a touch of relief. He decided he liked that feeling.
It was by noon the wind ushered the clouds out of the sky. The sun shone on the sea and it sparkled. It greeted Ethan with its polished and merry-like waves. The sound of the seashell discovery had stirred in him a latent hope for his situation. The sandwich in his hand he savoured too, had more flavour than usual and he wondered why he had never had it this good before. He thought he knew how a sandwich would taste, and yet, after he chewed slowly, he realised he hardly knew it at all. Appreciation translated on his face too when he added a Cherry Fizzie into a bottle of water, for he could hear the fizzles the tablet made upon making contact with water. The sound of its flavour released throughout the water, then turning it into something new. He heard it all. Fascinating.
He searched for the second paper. Two extra words now, this time he was supposed to “Search the past”. Vague. Where would he begin? What would one search for in the past? What was the point of it when all his anxieties were linked with the present and the future? But the stranger told him to be here on the beach. Ethan told him it was a place that made him happy. It was then he began to wonder if he could return to the past; if there was still in his adversity the indefinable mystery that will draw him close to happiness? If he was going to search the past, he reasoned, then maybe he was supposed to stretch his hand out for—the pursuit of joy he left behind when adulthood caught up.
He knew that in the bitterness of his struggles he was now equipped with what seemed like faith. So he searched his memory and began working on indefinite impressions like a painter would. He was coming close in reliving a special moment as he enhanced the colours and bolded the outlines. He chose distinct events and recollected as many details as possible. He would then visualize how these scenes would be completed with clothed human figures accompanied by their gestures. Lastly, he would listen carefully for the exact sound of their voices as he remembered them to be. Then the tide went out as he made a choice to turn back time.
Ten years exactly, to the last swimming trip he made with his first love. She had already left this place. But if he closed his eyes and focused, he could still see her with clarity, exquisite with her clear pale skin and black shining hair. Her beauty was unparalleled. In fact, Ethan saw the entirety: The ivory scimitar of the beach where she chased after him, the sky smeared with sunrise paint, the great waves coming in. He felt the splash on his face and tasted the seawater when she pushed him into the cool waters. He heard her jubilant yell, “Got you now!” when she was caught up with him. For a reward, he had crowned her head with seaweed. Piece by piece he rebuilt this scene. It was clear and unchanged under the transparent vanish of time. Then it was gone. But in that brief moment, he saw it all. Again, like he was there. Back in time.
That gave him a little more confidence. So what are happy people like? Chances are, everything from having a heart of gratitude to inspiring people, along with all the minor details in between. What if Ethan took a leap of faith now? What if he deliberately went back in time and knock on happiness’s door, might there not be an answer, when the right person opens it and welcomes him in? Is that… what they call ‘hope’?
Time moved more quickly than he expected this time. As the sun began its retreat down the sky, his mind ranged through the past, reliving some episodes, uncovering others that had been half- or completely forgotten. Across all the years, he remembered events, and knew that he was the happiest when he had no expectations of anything, of anyone. He was beginning to understand and feel the sudden glow of warmth in his heart. It felt reassuring. He checked his watch and watched it turn three o’clock. The tide was out and the sound of the waves became a rhythmic murmur, like a gentle giant drawing breaths. Ethan remained in his sandy kingdom, his feet in the golden sand. He felt at ease—and a little self-satisfied. He thought he could do this more often. Maybe a stranger’s advice wasn’t so difficult to follow after all.
But nothing in his life had quite prepared him for the words which confronted him. It was not a gentle suggestion for him to listen or search the past. This one was more akin to an order. Reconsider your intentions. His initial response was wholly resistive, almost apprehensive. What would a stranger know about his own purposes? Who was this stranger to question his motives? Is it wrong for me to yearn for success? Ethan said aloud in his head, I want to be recognized for the effort I put in my work. Is it wrong to have at least one person to acknowledge that I’m doing my best in the office? Is it wrong if I want money to feel secure, to know that I don’t have to worry about a roof over my head and food on the table? What’s wrong with wanting to BE successful?
Somewhere inside his head, a small voice whispered, perhaps your intentions weren’t good enough. Or maybe, he had forgotten his purpose or motivation for his life. Maybe that was the reason it had been harder for him to get out of bed, why his chest tightened every morning and he tried to pull the blanket over him. Perhaps in his internal ‘bookkeeping’ system—where in one column in the ledger he recorded the good things that happened to him, and another where he kept track of the wrongs leveled against him, one side was accumulating at a faster rate than the other. The bad side had outweighed the good, and it affected him adversely.
The reality was initially hard for him to grasp. But it became easier to accept it when he let his guard down, to be emotionally vulnerable in that moment. He picked up a handful of sand and let it stream between his fingers. The sand was his pursuit of happiness. In the past, whenever he performed splendidly in his work, there had always been something spontaneous about it. It was never planned. No. It was something uncontrived. Something free. Lately, it had to be calculated. Deadlines to be met, quotas to be filled, meetings to be attended, people to impress—when did he start measuring happiness? And why?
In his heart, he already knew the answer. He had been chasing the rewards he hoped it would bring past the job itself. The nine-to-five had ceased to be an end in itself; it had become a means to survive the next day and to repeat the process. No longer was there a sense in him to give something, to help someone, to make an impact on someone’s life. No. They had been lost in a frantic effort to pay the bills.
For a long time he stood there in his ground, trying not to succumb to self-pity. He asked himself whether, in fact, whether his intentions were wrong. He found it to be true. For if his intentions were right, he wouldn’t be feeling the way he felt daily. It made no difference whether one was a lawyer, a teacher, a salesman, a stay-at-home mom or dad—at all. No one ever gained happiness with the wrong motives. A change had to take place. He was going to shatter his complacency to strive. Because there was nothing for him to lose anymore.
Almost magical, a certain calmness took over him as he breathed in the ocean-carried air. The percussion of the waves that had been his lullaby since before he was a consciousness wrapped in human form. Even as the sky grew darker and serious, he was deeply relieved and grateful that the notes, had been nothing short of a healing course. One that might well be valuable to anyone facing adversity. He had found a way of understanding that challenges would follow him for the rest of his life, but they will also come to pass.
He had learned to “Listen”. It steadied his frantic mind and anxious heart. He could breathe and slow down time. He had learned to “Search the past“. Recalling the blissful memories swept away the present nerves when he pulled on the thread of happiness from the past. “Reconsider your intentions“. This was defining point, a pivotal moment for him to cast his fears aside and reexamine his purpose in this world. But for him to do that, his mind had to clear. Why else then would the man insist on the hours of solitude for him? While Ethan may have only saw a tiny piece of all that was going on, the man probably lived through his own difficulty and survived. Those eyes had witnessed more pain, those ears had heard more crying, those hands had reached out to others, to touch them knowing that he would gain nothing from it.
And it’s in this revelation that the sound of nature’s movement, the sound of noise, the sound of Ethan’s heartbeat, the sound of life, all coagulated into a comforting sense of physical liberation. The sky was a blaze of crimson as he took out the last slip of paper. He read it and smiled. Then he let the paper blow away, reached down and picked up a fragment of twig. There on the sand, he knelt determinedly and casted his troubles. Then he walked away slowly, leaving his footprints behind, every step confirming his newfound longing. He was going to press on and see it through to the end. Thus the breeze came with that sense of balance, the wisdom to move yet at a steady calm pace. In the wind, the last slip of paper pirouetted and its words, “Leave your troubles here and don’t turn back.” drifted into a peaceful place.
My writing has been a way for me to travel through a series of snapshots of my life. As such, it has given me the opportunity to reflect on both what has been and what may be to come. It’s an unsurprising train of thought, perhaps, considering the changes that were taking place in my own personal life and others as well. It's oddly comforting too, knowing that I'm not alone in this, and there are plenty of other creatives who going through their own battles. Writing wasn’t ever supposed to feel exploitative, it was supposed to be an account of what I feel like we were all going through. It helped us to access complex thoughts and emotions, frame it through another scope. There's a sense of freedom in that. And heck, it's encouraging when someone tells you, "and I thought I was the only one feeling this way."