The definition of terms

The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms. – Socrates

We were visiting friends at the beach this past week, and at one point I was with Grace in the ocean. Despite the heat of the day, the water was cold, and we were standing right at the edge of the waves’ breaking, tip-toeing in slowly. Suddenly a really big wave came and Grace was standing in just the wrong place. She was tumbled over and thrashed around in the whitewater. When she came up, spluttering, her hair and her bathing suit were both full of small rocks. She was breathless, surprised, somewhere between gigglingly startled and authentically afraid.

This was just one more time when the ocean provided me with a metaphor. I know I’m neither alone nor original in finding meaning in the waves, the water, the tide, the undertow. But it is to these images and sounds, to the salty bite of the ocean air, the snapping of halyards against masts, the caw-caw-cawing of seagulls soaring above that my mind most often returns. I am the child of sailors, who grew up mostly on the coast, and this runs through my veins as surely as does my affection for scientific inquiry and my East Greenwich Eldredge blood, so perhaps this instinct is innate.

For some reason I feel a connection between the image of my daughter, tossed in a wave breaking on shore, and that quote by Socrates. I’ve been in my own version of whitewater lately: feeling confused, a bit lost, unsteady. And I wonder if part of that is because I haven’t even begun to define my terms, the terms by which I want to live my life, by which I want to exist in the world. I am fairly sure that awareness of such a need is progress for me. I suspect that for years I just assumed some general universal terms applied to me. Terms that were, importantly, set by someone else.

No more

I’m going to set my own terms now.

I am not sure how, or when, because right now I’m still a bit upside down in the whitewater, unable to see for sea spray in my eyes, and waiting for the water to drain out of my ears so that I can hear clearly. But at least I know I need to. I know the terms I want to live my life by start with compassion and empathy and kindness, and that they include a deep need to honor the reality, savage and beautiful as it is, of my life.

Maybe that’s what writing is for me. Just as my lifetime love of cornflower blue was, all along, guiding me to my son’s eyes, maybe my words, in the convoluted, slow-to-be-revealed wisdom that I must trust is there somewhere, are taking me to the place where I will know how it is I want to engage with the world. How is it I want to live my life.

11 thoughts on “The definition of terms”

  1. Oh, we seem to be on the same bit of road. Again.

    After years of just avoiding the undertow, perhaps it is the time to chart the waters for ourselves.

    Words that have been inspiring…

    I know
    it’s hard to be reconciled
    not everything is exactly
    the way it ought to be

    but please turn around
    and step into the future
    leave memories behind
    enter the land of hope

    ~Zhigniew Herbert

    at the center of your being you have the
    answer: you know who you are and
    what you want.

    ~lao tzu

    Blessings on your journey….

  2. Beautiful. As you know, I’ve been redefining my terms after realizing I’d held so tightly to other’s definition of me for way to long. Peace and love to you on this journey.

  3. I love this post. I am going to set my own terms. So true. For so long I have been feeling that I am letting others down because my life doesn’t conform to what they saw for me. I’ve never asked: what do I want? What are my terms?

  4. using the wisdom of the ocean and its tidal rhythms to help define the terms of our lives…exactly where i am today. thank you, lindsey.

  5. My terms have changed and been redefined so many times. I think I am heading in the right direction now.

    Beautifully written, Lindsey! Enjoy the journey!!

  6. This is such a heartfelt post. This is where I am. Lost, with too much sand in my eyes and heart, living on some lost terms. I’ve been told that to some extent I have set these myself by accepting them, by lacking the courage to move on. But I know, it because I am not sure what my heart wants.The inner unrest is a quest for meaning and passion. Sometimes it feels like failure, not to know what my purpose is, what my ideal work is . Sometimes I tell myself, its only a part of life, the rest of me is good and fine. It really begins with compassion. Find peace knowing that we read your words and feel them. God bless.

  7. Thank you for reminding me that only I can define my terms for me. I can abdicate this responsibility, and take others’ definitions for my own without examination, but my life will be poorer for it. Off to do some (re)defining . . . .

  8. Yes, when I am tossed by the waves I don’t even know which way is up: do I giggle or am I frightened? Or both? And how can it be both?

    But the truth is “both” can be my answer. That is one of my defining terms. Along with “I don’t know.” I have found a great deal of calm in my life with those basic assumptions.

    What feels overwhelming is my best beginning because profound is waiting around the corner. It doesn’t feel like this at the time to me always, but, like the waves…I love it when the power in life takes hold of me and tosses me about.

    Does this make sense to anyone but me?

    I loved your metaphor and it took me on a journey.

    I tried.

  9. 1. I am also the daughter of sailors. (Lake Michigan. Have you been?)

    2. Waves and whitewater hold a lot of meaning and metaphor for me, as well.

    3. Whenever I get the chance to come read here, I feel a little bummed that I don’t have more time to come more often. Because your posts are always dense and chewy with so much to ponder, and skimming (all I seem to have time for lately) doesn’t cut it over here. I love your writing, Linds.

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