A Place at the Edge
If you're overwhelmed by the dramas of life, escape somewhere that you know will always be safe and peaceful.
BY: Ptolemy Tompkins
I’ve always liked being on the edge. On those few occasions when, as a kid, I took part in school plays, I’d get a strangely pleasant feeling when I stood on that spot behind the curtain at the edge of the stage where the actors who were going to be in the next scene would gather, waiting for their cue. If I craned my head a little, I could see row upon row of parents sitting in folding chairs, watching the action at the center of the stage. One step forward and I’d be onstage myself, pulled into whatever was going on there and totally visible to the audience. One step back and I’d be totally out of sight again, invisible to all and free of whatever dramas were unfolding just a few feet away. But at that one little spot in between, I was both in the action and out of it, both visible and invisible…
And for some strange reason, that felt like the perfect place to be.
I’d get the same sensation, sometimes, when bodysurfing at the beach. There was a certain point when, an advancing wave almost upon me, I had to choose to either turn and swim with the wave as it broke or else duck down and let it pass over. If I chose the latter option I’d have to be sure to goall
the way down, or else the wave would suck me up and take me with it as it rumbled past, spinning me head over heels.
Sometimes, ducking a big wave, I wouldn’t know till the very last moment whether I was going to be safe from it or not. Flattened down as close to the sandy bottom as I could get, I’d feel a sudden shift in the water as the wave swept by above. Was I out of the wave’s reach, or would it pull me up and take me with it? For a split second I wouldn’t know, and in that split second I’d again be taken over by that feeling of being neither in nor out, neither here nor there. And once again, I loved it.
As an adult I spend a lot less time in the waves at the beach than I did as a kid--and I haven’t been in a play since junior high. But I still, sometimes, get that feeling of being on the edge. Reading a book or jogging or sitting on the subway, I’ll suddenly become aware that there is a larger me behind the me that is going about its business down here in the world. This larger me sees my life and everything going on in it--from the good to the bad, the beautiful to the ugly, the exciting to the boring--just like the smaller me does. But it sees it all from a place on the edge--a place that is free of all the turbulence, all the fear and desire and other emotions that are always threatening to sweep me up and take me away with them.
It’s not that this larger me isn’t interested in what’s going on in my life. But it’s interested in a way that’s safe and unmoved by it--a way that allows whatever’s going on to just…happen without me feeling like I’m going to be hopelessly sucked up in it all. Seeing my life from this place on the edge, I know that whatever happens to me I can’t ever get totally lost in the world. Why? Because whether I’m aware of it or not, that larger part of me is always watching what’s happening from the place on the edge. All I need to do is get in touch with it.
Not that any of this is unique to me. From the Gospels (where Jesus counsels us to be in the world but not of it) to the "Bhagavad-Gita" (where the god Krishna tells the warrior prince Arjuna to do what he must without attachment to the consequences), the world’s wisdom literature is full of suggestions that life is, indeed, more than a little like one of those school plays I found myself standing at the edge of as a child. As Aldous Huxley, in the last piece of writing he completed before his death from cancer in 1963, wrote: “The world is an illusion, but it is an illusion we must take seriously. We must not attempt to live outside the world, but we must somehow learn how to transform and transfigure it. One must find a way of being in this world while not being in it.”
In but out. Here but not here…I wouldn’t want to live my whole life in that place on the edge, but I wouldn’t want to live without those occasional, always surprising moments in which I find myself there either. Whether I’m happily riding the waves of my life, being tumbled end-over-end by them, or (as is the case most of the time) doing a little bit of both, I try to keep those words of Huxley’s in mind, and to remember that the truest kind of wisdom comes from a place that is neither completely this-worldly nor completely other-worldly…but right in between the two.