If you doubt me, drive over to any beach on Lake Michigan as the tide is coming in, whitecaps roaring toward shore as inexorably as a heartbeat. Indeed, the insistent urgency of the tide’s rhythms feels like nothing quite so much as the life pulse of the earth itself, powered by some unseen force that sweeps everything — sand, seaweed, swimmers — along with it.
At that hour, if you stand at the water’s edge, you can feel the sand being sucked forcefully from under your feet with every ebb that carries the water back out into the lake. I can only imagine what sort of journey those millions of grains of sand will take. But if the experts have it right, it could be hundreds of feet or more with each wave.
She is powerful, this lake, so powerful that some beaches post signs to apprise visitors of daily swimming conditions. If it’s green the water is calm; yellow urges you to proceed with caution. Red means stay out. No kidding. Riptides are no laughing matter.
But if you respect that power and know how to work with it instead of against it, you can begin to understand how to connect at a deep level with the power that is all around you and, by extension, within you.
She has been described as a freshwater ocean, this lake whose shoreline touches four states. Last evening, it was easy to see why. Her iridescent surface glowing with a million peach shards in the sunset accented by shadows of deep teal-grey, the rising waves curled with thick white foam suddenly engulfed me for a brief moment in an unfathomable depth of green before they swept past to hurl themselves against the beach. By angling my body to be perfectly parallel with each coming wave, I enjoyed an exhilarating ride as I rose to the crest, then swooped downward in a dizzying descent.
I indulged in this aquatic roller-coaster ride until I was shivering with cold, despite the day’s 90-degree-plus temperatures. Then, turning toward shore, I used the power of the waves to maximize each thrust of my sidestroke, propelling me with exponential force toward shore.
But here’s the other thing about the power of the lake. I could not bring myself to step out of the water onto dry sand. My fingers were icy and numb, my teeth were chattering, the sun was rapidly descending with no more chance of providing a last bit of warmth. But still I could not pull myself away. Twice I turned and waded back out into waist-deep water, enjoying the push of the waves as they shoved past me in their race toward shore. I went back a third time. Then a fourth. I couldn’t stop. The water was teasing me, coaxing me, daring me, and I was powerless to resist. So I kept going back out to stand in the midst of the onslaught, meeting each forward thrust from the water with my own forward thrust that sometimes found me struggling to maintain my balance but never losing it. And all the time, I was surging with adrenaline and the sheer joy of staying upright and firmly grounded.
Which of us emerged the victor in that encounter? I would argue that we both did. The lake, of course, will always hold sway. We human creatures sometimes labor under the illusion that we can control nature. We even build elaborate systems to help sustain that illusion. But the fact is that at best, we can never really control anything except the way we respond to the forces of nature.
But in that moment when we fully acknowledge and embrace that fact — that the world around us does not change its laws for our convenience and that we must therefore adapt ourselves to be in harmony with that world — that is the exact moment when we experience our own greatest potential. Our own greatest joy. And our own greatest power in the natural ebb and flow of things.