Heraclitus on the Beach

I was talking on the phone with my brother on Thanksgiving evening when he said, “I don’t really care for the beach.”

If you’re reading this essay you probably know that I recently crossed the whole country, from New Mexico to Florida, to live near the beach. I wondered why he doesn’t like it.

“It’s always the same,”

Pat said. “The water comes in, the water goes out.” Look left, you see sand; look right, you still see sand. I can see his point.

Since early October, I’ve been walking the same stretch of beach almost every day. Some days there are birds everywhere, seagulls flocking on the shore, pelicans skimming the waves, egrets fishing in the surf.

Other days, I don’t see so many birds. It could be that I’m looking down on those days, hunting for seashells. Some days there aren’t any shells at all. Other days, you can hardly walk barefoot because thick shell beds threaten to slice your feet.

One day I saw a sea turtle lug her heavy body from the salt dunes into the water. Two other days I saw baby sea turtles washing in and out with the surf. One day a giant coconut washed ashore. It sat on the beach for days and then one morning it was gone.

Sunday morning we walked past a big dead fish that looked like it had just washed up. One especially calm day I watched a commotion offshore. A helpful man told me it was a bait ball. (I didn’t know what it was either. Follow the link–it was pretty cool.) One day Fred watched a fisherman catch an eel.

In other words, the beach is different every day.

I’m not saying my brother is wrong, just that we look at a beach and see different things.

So here’s the point where I was going to say something like, “As they say, you can’t step into the same river twice.” 

But then I got curious. Who exactly said that? I asked Dr. Google, and the internet’s short answer was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, hands down.

Then I followed a few links, and realized things weren’t so clear cut. According to the scholars at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, you can trace the idea that “everything is in flux” to Heraclitus, by way of Plato.

But scholars are still discussing what Heraclitus actually meant. I’m not going to try to summarize the argument, (you can follow the link if you want to get your inner philosopher on), but it hinges on a scrap of papyrus where Heraclitus presumably wrote,

“On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow. ”

It’s pretty, isn’t it? You can read it over and over and not really be sure what he meant. The scholars note that the writings of Heraclitus were marked by this “linguistic density,” and that he liked to speak in riddles.   

So let’s interrupt this weird foray

into philosophy for a minute so we can all figure out what we’re doing here. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and I haven’t posted an essay since the shootings in Pittsburgh sent me reeling. Lots of important and awful things have been happening in the world. Midterm elections, more shootings, horrific fires, and still more shootings. Those things crashed right into Thanksgiving, and I just couldn’t find a grateful path through it all.

I also haven’t been able to find my rhythm. Daylight savings hit just when I was starting to know when to expect the sun. I’m rising later, and evenings feel longer here. Diurnal tides sweep the ocean in and out each day, and I’m still surprised every time by just how far the water recedes.

None of which really explains why I’m writing about Heraclitus this afternoon and not something important like the vote that’s happening in Mississippi.

The Stanford philosophers explain that “…the message of the one river fragment, …, is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing.”

So all that is to say that my brother and I are both right–the ocean has to change in order to remain constant. The philosophers put it like this: “flux” is not “destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy…”

Now we’re talking.

Roughly eight months ago, my husband and I upended our perfectly good lives by deciding to move across the country. We could have remained constant; we could have just stayed put and continued to live as we had been. But this move felt, and continues to feel meant, even though it’s eight months later and we’re still in flux.

I’m inspired by Heraclitus to relax into the paradox. It’s comforting to think I had to change in order to remain the same.

Heraclitus also believed in the “unity of opposites.” I don’t have enough brain cells left today to try to understand what he meant, but it brings up another paradox I wrestle with. I am sure that we live in a world where love wins, and yet it’s clear that hate flourishes. I guess that’s a paradox for another day. Maybe I’ll think about it after we find out who won in Mississippi.

For now I’ll just note that Theophrastus, another Greek philosopher, attributed the fragmentary nature of Heraclitus’s work to “the author’s melancholy.”

That seems about right, too. It’s cold here today. I’m sitting at my friend’s desk and looking out the window at the sea. The water is coming in and the water is going out.

I think I’ll head out to the beach and see what’s new.


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