The pelican and me

My wife and I flew to Florida for the weekend, to escape our worldly cares — otherwise known as “work” and “kids.”  Saturday night, we went to a joint called Fishlips, in which we sat overlooking an inlet open to the ocean.

The food was good.  The live band favored Sixties tunes.  The view was different:  unsleek fishing boats moored together or trolling about, and across the inlet some sort of industrial operation had raised a metal silo and a mound of sand.  But there was a stillness on the face of the deep, and after sunset dozens of electric bulbs lit up the industrial site, and shimmered on the water.

In the failing light, I noticed a pelican gliding just inches from the surface, criss-crossing the inlet in an obsessive quest for fish.

Inwardly, I chided the pelican.  What was the point?  The sun had slipped beneath the horizon.  The bird could barely see its own beak in front of its eyes, let alone any fish under the darkening waters.  Why not call it quits for the day?  Go home to the pelican equivalent of watching Law and Order on TV, with the wife and kids?

The pelican kept gliding, here and there, a hand’s breadth above the water, searching for something that had become impossible to find.  Why was it doing that?

Because (I realized) that’s what pelicans do.  They search for fish.  Baitfish swim near the surface, and sometimes get eaten by pelicans — but swimming near the surface is what baitfish do, and there’s no wishing otherwise.  The whole natural order, with its seeming ruthlessness and violence, consists of millions of players working out their parts with greater or lesser skills.  I should not expect baitfish to recite Shakespeare, or a pelican to work by the clock.

You do what you do.  I sat at my table and thought thoughts.  Others around me drank, talked, smoked.  You do what you do.  In the case of the pelican, the role to be played is limited by the power of instinct.  In the case of the human being, the role is less determined, and the story of a life is a balance between pushing the limits and acknowledging them.

Ultimately, every organism — every human being — is bounded, and can’t push beyond a certain line.  To recognize that boundary is the beginning of wisdom.  To overcome it is the totalitarian’s dream.  That individual and community is freest that freely accepts our finite nature, and pushes this to the fullest degree of excellence.  The Overman invented by Nietzsche never has been and never will be.  The attempt to create him by main force and will power leads to degradation:  to holocausts and killing fields.

You do what you do.  The negative side of it (I also realized) is true as well.  You can’t do what you can’t do.  Maybe I’m particularly dim, or maybe I’d had one glass too many, but sitting by the dark waters at Fishlips it seemed that few recognize the importance of this truism.  You can’t do what you can’t do.  Many of us embrace an inner Overman, a wishful world that begins with the words:  if only.  Companies substitute exhortation for business plans.  Great frustration, great anger arise from failure to do what was beyond doing.

So too with the cares I brought with me to Florida.  They disappeared once I felt, in all honesty:  you can’t do what you can’t do.  The world isn’t on my shoulders.  To think otherwise is vanity.

On this blog, I recently raised the flag of freedom against determinism.  Let’s be clear:  we are not machines, not robots, not even tightly controlled organisms like termites.  An element of indeterminacy enters every human life.  But that is far from saying we can aspire to become anything or anyone we wish:  far from the fallacies of the Protean dream.  That dream, if realized, would mean disintegration.  To be anything, any one thing, is not to be many, many others.

But the dream is unrealizable.  You can’t do what you can’t do.  We must learn to live wide awake.

In the end, the pelican settled down.  Shortly after, a dolphin, making strange curling movements through the water, passed in front of us.  That movement, I recalled, is called “porpoising”:  good for porpoises, bad for boats.  I sipped my chardonnay, happy to be with my wife, filled with the wonder of the strange world we live in.

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