What is to give light… must endure burning. Viktor E. Frankl
In a moment, in an instant really, all the other sightseeing boats had disappeared.
Even the pod of whales, which just a few moments ago seemed everywhere all at once, was reduced to one giant, who surfaced, breached, and, with the flip of its tale, left us to pursue a life beyond our gaze… outside our reach.
Our reason for coming, it seemed, was abruptly over.
Whale watching from our perspective.
People watching from theirs.
It felt oddly disconcerting.
No more whales. No more boats. Just us, the seven of us (and a small dog), on my friend’s 28’ open Sea Ray. Engines off, strangely quiet, we had been so focused on watching the whales that their sudden departure left an uncomfortable void.
“Okay, time to head back I guess.”
I stood at the helm while my friend (and Captain of the boat), attended to an injury to his arm. I hadn’t spent much time in boats since I was a child and it had been a treat for me to share the driving with him.
“Which way should we go?” Although the skills associated with driving the boat had come back quickly – almost like a muscle memory – I hadn’t been old enough, or curious enough as a child, to learn to navigate. Longitude, latitude and compasses belonged, in my brain, to a math subgroup that elicited more terror than exploratory excitement.
I thought he hadn’t heard me. “Which way should we go?”
There is a space that exists, after a question is asked, where all possible outcomes reside, waiting to be whittled down to one – the answer – from which the rest of the story unfolds.
He paused – perhaps a millisecond too long – and pointed. And my therapist training picked up on it. I registered my own uncomfortable internal response – but said nothing. I looked out to the horizon and realized that I could not see land, and, it occurred to me in that moment that I had not seen land for quite a while.
There was no land.
Only us. And fog.
“Go that way.”
And I did.
An hour later, an hour of trying to stay on whatever random course had been chosen, an hour of swelling seas and rising winds, an hour of blinding sun, an hour of depleted conversation and increased concern, an hour later, my friend’s 15 year old niece asked the question everyone wanted to ask but had been afraid to voice. “Are we lost?”
Yes. We were lost.
We were lost with a radio that cut on and off.
We were lost with a storm on the way.
We were lost with 35 mile per hour winds.
We were lost with 10 foot ocean swells.
We were lost without GPS.
We were lost without navigation maps.
We were lost without phone signals.
We were lost without enough food and water.
We were lost. And finally we were admitting it to ourselves and to each other.
We transitioned from “in-control aquatic tourists” to “lost at sea insignificance” at 1:00 pm. The Coast Guard finally was able to get a read on our location at 5pm and informed us that a rescue boat would not be able to reach us for three hours.
Three more hours alone in the storm.
Three more hours of waning light.
Three more hours of drift.
Three more hours of learning to respond to our dangerous new reality.
The rescue boat finally did arrive but could not get close enough to take passengers because of the rough seas. Our instructions were to follow him back to shore. It would take another four hours.
There were moments during the rescue that I thought we would not make it back. At one point, while I was attempting to keep us steady and follow our rescuer, a huge wave hit the boat, knocked me over and flooded the cabin – the engines died. We could not see the rescue boat any longer. My friend took the wheel.
I felt hands on me, steadying me, my friends, my husband, asking if I was okay, telling me to be careful. I sat on the floor of the boat, huddled with the rest in the open cabin, shivering. As we looked up into the night sky, I was reminded of a line from a Zora Neale Hurston novel – “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” When would it end? How would it end?
Everyone grew quiet. But regularly, almost like a drumbeat, someone would call out “Are you okay Joe?” “Yes I’m okay, are you okay Kelly?” “Yes I’m okay, Jeff how are you doing?” and on and on. Supporting each other. Reassuring each other. Even the dog, wet and shivering, sat between my legs and periodically licked my hand and looked up into my face.
In those moments, I became both a participant, and an observer. I was a psychologist, and a friend. I watched and listened as they cared for one another, and for me.
To find strength, I needed to make meaning.
I saw in action psychotherapist Viktor Frankl’s quote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
I watched these people choosing to construct an experience in which they would manifest the very best of human qualities. There were many routes available – anger, despair, fear, selfishness, bitterness – any one of which would have been understandable. But everyone chose kindness. Everyone chose love. And by choosing to react with kindness, and by choosing to react with love, and by choosing to see the good in each other, we were lifted up into a calm togetherness.
As a humanist, as someone who believes in the innate potential of all people, my heart was full. It was an affirmation of my convictions.
As a man, as a husband, as someone who loves his family and his friends, it was a profound comfort – and I was no longer afraid. I held fast in the knowledge that, whatever the outcome, I was surrounded by the best of humanity. An affirmation of our birthright.
The rescue boat finally circled back and towed us into Provincetown harbor at 11:15pm.
Joe Bolduc. July 25, 2013.