Thirst and Madness: Finding Drinking Water in the Middle of Your Ocean
“They were at sea nine years… During this time, they were shipwrecked three times. Twice they were picked up by friends, but the third time they had to take to life boats. His faithful friend… must have drowned because he never saw him again. There were nine sailors in the boat with Abia. They drifted for many days. Their food ran out and water could only be gotten when it rained, and they were fortunate to catch any. Some of the men went insane. One jumped overboard…”
--From “Settlers of the West: Histories of the Lorenzo Snow and Flora Waterman Whiting Families,” Compiled by Katherine Whiting Stokes
Abia Brown, the one referred to in the quote above, was my ancestor. I learned about him from a very old auntie of mine that I met at the only family reunion that my family ever attended. I never saw her again. The conversation was an auspicious occasion that opened a door to our family history that might have remained forever closed, had it not occurred.
The short story is that Abia was a rich kid living in Massachusetts about 1815-1816. When he was about 16 years old, he got mad at his wealthy, widowed mother and ran away to the ocean. As you can tell from what’s written above, he had an interesting life. It actually gets more interesting from there, but that would take me away from the point I want to make, which starts with a restatement of part of the passage from above:
“…Their food ran out and water could only be gotten when it rained and they were fortunate to catch any. Some of the men went insane. One jumped overboard…”
It’s safe to say that when a person is on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, the only provisions that matter are the ones already on the boat. It’s also clear from the tale that the men on Abia’s craft had none to speak of. From what we know of people suffering serious thirst, it appears that in some cases it can drive a person insane. I’ve heard of this happening before for shipwrecked sailors. Thirst begets madness and they jump overboard, apparently believing that fresh water is a short swim away. They’re never seen again.
Thinking of this phenomenon, that passage from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner comes to mind:
“Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”
But there’s something missing in this narrative, isn’t there? Can you sense that it’s oversimplified? Thirst to madness, in a few days? It doesn’t sound quite right, does it? So, let’s dig deeper into this for a moment.
I submit that it’s not only the lack of water that caused the tragic end to my ancestor’s crew-mate and others who have suffered this situation. Thirst alone, in other words, doesn’t cause the insanity. Rather, it has to do with the setting: these individuals are dying of thirst in the middle of an endless expanse of liquid that looks like salvation, yet is essentially poisonous.
Can you imagine that? You’re dying of thirst, and all you can see for as far as you can see is liquid that looks like it can save your life. Except it’s toxic.
I can imagine it. I’ve taken part in plenty of indigenous ceremonies that require four days of fasting from both food and water. To put it mildly, it’s hard. Still, while it might be said that I’m “a little off” by some, no serious mental illness has resulted.
As I mentioned above, I submit that it’s the environment in which the suffering takes place that’s the culprit. A man who is dying of thirst is one thing. Dying of it in the middle of an undrinkable ocean is another.
Why would this be so, and what does it matter to people who will never be in this situation? Well… we ARE in this situation, potentially, metaphorically. Every one of us.
Why? Because we all suffer “thirst,” from time to time. That thirst is the feeling of emptiness that can
descend upon us when we feel alone, abandoned, or otherwise unwell. It can come with censure from someone we respect, or with a bad day at work. It can come with hormonal changes in our bodies, or as we observe others’ suffering (empaths). These are all conditions that can bring the metaphorical thirst I want to briefly discuss.
None of these conditions alone will bring madness. But what is madness? For our purposes, it’s identifying as reality something that is not real in the face of an emotional trauma. In other words, something unbidden comes into our lives. It’s uncomfortable and begins to affect us emotionally: bad mood, sadness, feeling alone, even abandoned. Welcome to the middle of the ocean. Madness has not taken place, or at least not increased. Yet, this is the crux; what we do here depends on whether madness will gain strength, or not.
If we’re healthy and have practices in place, rather than spin down the rabbit hole of self-pity or hopelessness, we’ll remove ourselves from the small view of, “I’m suffering” to a larger context.
Easier said than done, depending on how far into the throes we allow ourselves to go. Note that the “I” in “I’m suffering” is almost always ego. (As Jane Roberts' Seth says, “Being doesn’t struggle.”) Even though we need ego to live in the world, ego can be healthy, or not. If we identify the “I” as Ourselves, ego can drive us to the kind of madness I’ve described in these situations. If we use ego rather than allowing it to use us, it won’t.
Let’s say we are indeed healthy and we have, say, a meditation practice. We know that thoughts are things, as Napolean Hill said they were a century ago. A trigger occurs, that contraction into self begins, and we want to “run.”
Let’s get in the boat with Abia and see what health after a trigger looks like. Only this time, Abia isn’t shipwrecked. Rather, he’s had a bad day at work. He likes his job and makes good enough money at it. He’s dedicated himself, enjoyed some accolades, and hopes to be there a long time.
But, “this new manager…,” and, “revenues are down,” and his annual review didn’t go as well as he thought it would. His ego was enjoying the work. It felt comfortable there. Now, this ego (Abia, like all of us, has many) feels threatened.
Abia has assigned a certain importance to this ego. That’s how ego survives; by feeling important. This has been helpful because he’s been able to show a certain dedication to his work that has, in turn, stoked this ego. But Abia has been mindful as the accolades have come in. He’s told himself that these honors are not what brings him value. He has more innate value already than all the awards in the world could bestow.
So, here we have one key to avoiding madness: when things are good, we don’t “bite” any more than we do when things are bad. We keep a perspective, no matter the situation.
Good job, Abia.
But let’s say he doesn’t keep perspective when his new manager gives him lower marks than he’d like. Let’s say he begins to spiral down into, we’ll call it, “self-pity.” At the end of his day, he goes to his car. He’s been distracted by the rest of the work day until now, so the self-pity has only taken so much hold on him. But now, Abia has unstructured time to wallow.
Watch out, brother.
At this point, he can distract himself. He can turn on sports talk radio or some heavy metal music. The former numbs him and the latter justifies his angry mood. Neither of these actions would help long-term. They’d merely be placeholders for ego to breathe, so it can create its own story around the pain. That’s all distraction ever is.
“The new boss is an idiot,” might be what ego would say after it has time to consider. “Revenue is the problem, not me,” might be another story. “God must hate me,” might be yet another.
But Abia doesn’t distract himself. Instead, he assesses the most important provisions he has: the ones already on his boat.
He gets behind the wheel and takes a few deep breaths. Checking in with himself, he sees and acknowledges that the interaction with his new boss has caused him concern. There’s a type of contraction in his chest that he identifies as fear-based, and he knows that fear and love are incompatible. He’s made a commitment to love which that has manifested in a daily meditation practice. On the strength of his practice, he acknowledges that his generally helpful ego feels threatened and is asking for a healthy story around it. Without consciously creating a healthy story, the ego will create an unconscious, unhealthy one as sure as you’re reading this.
Did you get that?
The ego feels threatened, not the man. Why? Because Abia has learned before the crisis to identify Self with Soul, not ego. Abia is not his work. Rather, He (embodied Soul) goes to work. Put another way, Abia uses ego. Ego does not use Abia.
Seeing that this aspect of himself, this ego, feels threatened, he literally breathes air into the contraction. A half-dozen deep breaths later, pointed at the actual place in his body where he feels it, Abia has created space between the trigger and every possible response.
Here is where his innate, soulful wisdom can re-enter the equation. He realizes that nothing happened in the review that’s a long-term issue. In fact, the manager had some new insight that Abia can now use since ego is out of the way for the moment. Humility comes with wisdom, and one definition of humility is “being teachable.” So, he can take what was said, release the effect it was beginning to have on him, and use the message. He can also look at the seemingly abrasive way the information was presented and chalk it up to a manager being unfamiliar with his work. He can here find some compassion for his new boss.
Wins all over the place!
Sitting behind the wheel in the parking lot, Abia feels a kind of peace blossom within him. He has controlled his environment, which is ultimately his own mind. His thirst has been quenched, for now, so madness will not take hold. He feels connected to something bigger than himself again. This is because his story has been told in a consistent mindfulness practice that is bigger than a painful, egoic moment.
And the story is this:
I am not my thoughts. I am not my emotions. All is impermanent.
All is circular.
I am beloved.
This is what is real to him; more real than a solitary, uncomfortable experience.
Modern-day Abia starts his car. It occurs to him that he might call his boss and thank him for his insight, a complete 180 from how he was feeling only minutes earlier. He could do this, but he doesn’t. He’ll thank him in person, tomorrow.
So, Abia takes a long drink from his stores of water, passes some to his crew-mates, and rows toward land.
(Artwork by The Smart Emporium)