Have you ever walked along the water’s edge in wet sand, leaving behind a transient trail of footprints that will be washed away by the sea? The image is an evocative one, though a little trite perhaps. Many have seen it as an illustration of the fleeting and impermanent nature of our passage through the world.
Although there may be few things more wonderful than walking through warm shallows and laughing at the sun, that too brings an image of life to mind. The shallows are comfortable, they are safe and known, the point where land and water meet. We experience both without leaving our own natural element. We don’t even need to adjust much, simply take of the shoes and walk. At worst we risk stepping on a shard of shell. But we feel the caress of the waves on our skin and the shifting tides echoing in our bodies.
How often do we unconsciously stick to the safety of the shallows, walking along the edges of life and taking care never to get out of our depth? No danger, no major adjustments required, but we can dip our toes in the edges of life and retreat easily when the bigger wave comes, never leaving our comfort zone.
Leaving the water’s edge and plunging headlong into life can be a scary thing. It makes us visible in a world where anonymity feels safer. People stop and stare, they may think we are mad, or envy the lunacy and the freedom that allows it. Either way, it is only those prepared to get wet who will explore the depths and discover the inner beauty of the oceans.
Yet have you ever run through the frozen waters of a winter sea, laughing as the cold bites? That is a different thing altogether. Suddenly you are a child again, there is an energy and a joy, a feeling of breaking the bonds of everyday life and touching the edges of an almost Dionysian exhilaration.
Have you walked barefoot in the snow? Your feet are cold, though not, oddly enough, as cold as you would expect. You cannot help laughing as the comfort zone is thrown out of the window. The ground is hidden beneath the white blanket. You do not know what you will stand on, there is an element of risk with every step. The footprints you leave behind are different. Your own warmth melts the snow around them and they are bigger, as if by braving this unusual element you have somehow grown in stature.
What about the footprints you will leave behind you as you leave this life? It is something many of us consider as we get older, of course. Some want to make a mark in the world of business or the arts, some will want to leave a giant footstep imprinted on history… some will do so whether they intended to or not. Most of us, however, are content with the quieter trail left in the hearts of those we love. That faint imprint we leave where we have touched another being in love and kindness, shared tears and laughter or taught a child, nurturing and helping it grow. In many ways these are the most enduring footprints as they shape the future as we walk and the quiet echo of our footfall may be felt long after we have left the room.
We often consider these footprints left to posterity only in terms of how they will be perceived by others. But what about ourselves? Are we paddling in the shallows because we ought or because we want to? Some of our greatest achievements follow from breaking our own inner bonds and doing the things that we dream of, embracing life without embarrassment and laughing at our own fears as we watch them recede into the distance, dispersing like foam on the water.
All too often, I think, we simply accept the image of ourselves the world mirrors back to us instead of looking more closely and seeing it is only two dimensional while we are more than that. Like a hall of mirrors this image is reflected into apparent infinity unless we step aside and see that we are helping to create it by our very stasis within it. Step out of the comfort zone and the illusion is broken.
I have a feeling we do much the same with life. We are so afraid of losing the image we have of ourselves that we dare not move. We do not do the things we dream because we are afraid of who we might be outside of that static reflection.
We are all so different, our dreams vary from great to small, each one equally precious and fragile, each personal and to be treasured. Perhaps in realising our dreams the footprints we leave would be a little different. Who knows what possibilities could be born into the world? Will you look back on your own life with regret if you never left the shallows or stood naked in the snow? Or will you see where you left your footprints and smile thinking, ‘Oh yes, that was me.’
Originally published 2013