It’s been a long time since I last read Moby Dick, but I found myself engaged in a conversation about life’s white whales this weekend, so I bought it on Audible and I am in the process of listening to it again.
(Side note: If you haven’t read it, you probably should. So many life lessons for reflection. It is about everything, an adventure spun in allegory that seems to exist outside its own time, much like Don Quixote and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It is so broad and deep that is can practically accept any interpretation while it stares back and mocks our desire for interpretation.)
Ahab’s obsession with harpooning the whale is about so much more than what it seems; it is evocative of a tendency we all have to pursue certain outcomes with an intensity that may lead to devastating consequences.
Upon discussing my friend’s proverbial white whale, they asked me, “Shannon, do you have a white whale?” I may have blushed a bit as I answered that I did, indeed, have one. Because of how well they know me, I am fairly certain they are aware of what it is already. (So, if you are reading this, your best guess is probably accurate.)
Perhaps we all have a white whale. There is something, somewhere in the fabric of our lives, that changed us forever and left us wondering, seeking, desiring, perhaps full of vengeance like Ahab, or perhaps in wild, reckless pursuit of love like my friend. At times, it can be so difficult to see how our single-minded pursuit of an objective, even if it seems like a good thing, can be destructive to us and others.
We have all had a moment (or a few) in our lives where we felt like we could only achieve a particular objective or outcome if we focus on it single-mindedly. Sometimes we allow a thing (or person as it may be) to become so big in our minds that we can no longer keep everything in balance. Sometimes, it’s difficult, painful, heart-wrenching to even think of letting go.
Thankfully, we have the opportunity to hold ourselves back from following Ahab’s footsteps. We don’t have to become so engrossed that we lose ourselves and hurt those we love. Sometime we have to painstakingly, consciously, choose to let our whale roam free, knowing it/they forever altered our course, and accepting that the resolution we long for so badly may never come to pass. And sometimes, by freeing our mind of the objective or outcome that we desire, we are able to keep the beautiful parts of what was and find ourselves richer for it.
Melville alludes to this idea that embracing paradox may be the key to happiness or life. There are several areas of the book where we see this – Ishmael’s fragmented thinking from different perspectives as the book progresses, or the way he lives by embracing death as he clings to the empty coffin to survive. It seems almost as though it is the multiplicity of truth that sustains him.
I find this to be eerily similar to my own world. I spent years wrapped up in the idea that I had to be a particular type of person, throwing away the person I actually was in that pursuit. I spent seven years pursuing a person who didn’t know how to love me, leading us both to make extremely toxic choices with consequences that will last a lifetime. And just recently, I had the opportunity to embrace death, and it was only in doing so, that I was able to kiss him goodbye for a while and realize how much I appreciate life.
When we widen our mind to see that all things are part of a continuum, we discover our ability to survive and thrive no matter the external circumstances.
So, embrace the paradox, the multi-faceted wonder that is life.
Let your whale go.
Realize it was but a brief moment, one that changed you forever.
Take the time you need to realize that it is not, and doesn’t have to be, the only moment you base the rest of your life around.
… and if you do somehow happen across that whale again in this incredible adventure of life, perhaps you can make a better, more conscious choice to avoid it or embrace it, knowing that nothing is ever forever.