Andrew Johnston, “Boat”

For a long time, I thought anxiety a taboo subject. I was used to awful people in my life telling me that their abuse of me was justified because they were stressed. And I certainly lashed out at times, making the same terrible claim (1). When I focused on projecting confidence, being more assertive, I focused on specific skills, such as public speaking, writing and talking clearly, being more organized. This worked to a degree, but the limits of it are clear to me now.

All this is to say that I didn’t bother to find the source of the actual anxiety. I’ve gotten too many responses to “On Anxiety” already, and I had better say something practical, which is: if you’re feeling anxious, identify the source, then do something positive about it. Nowadays, I’ll write in my personal journal, trying to find the source of the feeling. From there, I’ll assess. What did I do wrong? How am I being wronged? What would I like things to be? What can I reasonably change? That’s identification and evaluation of the source. Doing something about it involves short-term fixes (listening to music, going for a walk, reading, talking to people I trust) and long-term fixes (getting toxic people out of my life, insisting on accountability, taking care of responsibilities, reaching out to others, finding the right job, going to counseling, doing something fulfilling, etc.).

I’m spitballing a bit, but I just want to emphasize that if you think you have a problem, do something about it. The worst of all possible worlds occurs when you paralyze yourself.

Alright. With that said, let’s talk about this gorgeous poem by one Andrew Johnston, a New Zealand poet who writes introspectively, carefully measuring every word. “Boat,” below, is about our expectations regarding thought itself:

Boat (from poetryarchive.org)
Andrew Johnston

A boat though no more than a thought
might carry us, far from

the coast, as far as
we know. But

is it a ship then,
cresting and sounding? I think,

for its boasting, it’s just a boat
drifting down a difficult river —

now and then it runs aground
and that is where we live.

Comment:

“A boat though no more than a thought might carry us, far from the coast, as far as we know.” Thoughts, however small, are boats of a sort. Both can carry us “far from the coast,” away from previously impassable boundaries, to “as far as we know.” Dreamily, Johnston introduces the question of how thought functions. Does thought go “as far as we know?”

If so, maybe a thought plumbs our minds, revealing us to be deeper than we regarded ourselves. For thought can carry us far from the coast, bringing us to somewhere wholly new. Should we exult in this? Johnston asks if he should grant the thought/boat no less than majesty: “But is it a ship then, cresting and sounding?” Does every thought, no matter how tiny, implicitly hold a conquering, epic scope?

Johnston hesitates. “I think, for its boasting, it’s just a boat drifting down a difficult river.” We’re not necessarily conquering oceans, for thought exists in a specific context. The earth we traverse is smaller, more particular than we thought it was. To be exact: thoughts are relative to the complications of our lives. This doesn’t mean we can’t have large thoughts that communicate across the ages. It does mean that truly thinking starts with recognition of where one is.

The proof that we don’t conquer oceans, that our thoughts about God and humanity and the fate of nations begin with what is personal more than what is universal, is that thoughts strand us. Even if you think through something well, even if you arrive at something original and groundbreaking, you do not automatically become a fountain of wisdom and impartiality. You still have limits, areas where your partial grasp of the whole truth provides for you, but in their own way obscure the whole. “Now and then it [thought] runs aground and that is where we live.”

I guess my hope for all of you is that as you resolve your anxieties, you work with these limits and don’t find them discouraging. I hope you can embrace the deep need for diversity which a proper appreciation of life entails. Sometimes, anxiety is born of intolerance, hewing to the delusion that if all said the same – if a universal truth were fully articulated – all would be well. It’s never that simple; often, how things are meant stands far more important than a literal meaning.

Notes

(1) The distinction between a more realistic anxiety and neurotic anxiety is useful here. Going back to the previous post, I stand by saying anxiety alone doesn’t justify anything. However, a clear, demonstrable pattern of abuse – perhaps trampling over people’s rights, or demonizing the powerless – is not a cause of neurotic anxiety. It’s the cause of a more than justified anxiety, the latter which cannot dissolve until the former is addressed.

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