There is no pain equal to that which two lovers can inflict on one another. This should be made clear to all who contemplate such a union. The avoidance of this pain is the beginning of wisdom, for it is strong enough to contaminate the rest of our lives.
The divers in telni’s majestic and sorrowful ode to the allure of the unattainable would seemingly do well to heed the warning writ large in the above quote. For what are love and desire and longing if not weapons of great destructive force, turned inward, and wielded by those whose only intent is to use it on themselves? Would human existence not be more tolerable and free from torment if we, as the instruments of our own destruction, simply shut out those unnecessary emotional interferences and reverted back to the primordial state of absolute, instinctual need for survival, and nothing more? Can we consider, then, that those of us who choose not to entertain notions of the unknown, who remain passive to the possibility of that which eludes us, that it is these people alone who are, and always shall be, content?
What is love, anyway, if not a hypothetical construct? Yet almost all of us, at one time or another, have felt the almost palpable desire to be in love, or to love something, or someone, or to be a part of a grand human design. To love is to throw oneself at the mercy of faith, because it is only through the belief that love actually exists that it is able to be experienced at all.
But what of other, less acceptable constructs? For instance, the mythical salt mill in We were built to swim for eighty years. Another artifact of faith, and one that the characters in the story willingly endanger themselves in order to glimpse. The salt mill itself is, of course, an archetype. A deep sea Holy Grail. A litmus test of faith. But it also serves as an intriguing narrative device, a satisfying counterpoint to the use of Blue Whales. These whales, god-like in stature and form, are able to dwarf us as they, in turn, are rendered insignificant by the vastness of the ocean. Whereas the salt mill, the object of desire for those who yearn for all that it is whispered and hidden, is ‘small enough to hold in your hands.’ Yet it is the substance that the mill contains, salt, that provides the biggest clue to the divers’ desires. The concept that an integral element of the ocean can be imprisoned and ground in such an unassuming vessel, irrespective of its actual existence, is vital to many of the theories put forth in this story. We, as humans, sought to use explosives to contend with the giant, rotting corpse of a beached whale. A salt mill, small, fragile and unassuming, can crush one of the quintessential elements of the ocean itself.
Do we, at our most base level, secretly desire to obtain that which we know to be beyond our grasp? Or is it rather the faith in such things, the belief that there is as much beauty in the searching as there is the acquisition, that drives the restless amongst us to risk everything established and safe in the pursuit of that which, in our dreams and fantasies, brings light into the world.
Reading through We were built to swim for eighty years, I was reminded of The Cottingley Fairies. And of how, long after the photographs that were taken had been exposed as a hoax, many still clung to the belief that, if not the fairies in the photographs then still, perhaps, somewhere, fairies were real. Without these things, and perhaps they are childish and fruitless and, ultimately, a clear basis for tragedy, life becomes only a series of things known – an endless parade of black and white film stills. Misery very often lies at the end of these roads, but there is grace and redemption to be found in risking everything in the hope that life isn’t simply what remains after we have locked our childhoods away. And even when we fail, even when we simply do not find what it is that we have been searching for, there is a certain comfort to be derived from this. Because if we are unable to find that which we desire, we are still able to believe that, somewhere, it still may exist.