Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
October 2014 - Volume 14, No. 10
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The Fear of Going Down (Part II of “The Space In Between”)

The Spanish poet, Antonio Machado (1875-1939) has written
Mankind owns four things  
that are no good at sea:

rudder, anchor, oars,  
and the fear of going down.  
(Tr Robt Bly)

Not being a man of boating I think I understand the first three. But the last rings true down through the layers of my inner memory.

Two months ago I wrote of that “space in-between” where we can insert a pause or a moment to interrupt the expressways of our thinking and behaviors, those that frequently lead us, like a habit, to a standard, predictable, though often undesirable, outcome. I spoke of that ‘space’ becoming a source of uplift, transcendence, like the breaking of a spell that has long bound us - as an experience of ‘blessing.’


Now it’s time to speak of the times when that “space in between” can take us down. When it’s more like an ordeal, where any sense of blessing is withheld or at least long delayed.

In Machado’s poem, the context is the masculine, men who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in the great waters (Psalm 107). When they venture out there, at the mercy of that treacherous interface between the wind and the water, the shallow-water utilities of “rudder, anchor, oars” are of little use. I’ve heard it said that in most cases, seamen rarely know how to swim. What good would it ultimately do? And the “fear of going down” will overwhelm them, when they most need to focus.

The female counterpart that most frequents my consciousness emerges when I behold a pregnant woman. She looks beautiful, even regal in her pregnancy; but within she knows this must lead to the painful ordeal of delivering her holy bundle through that narrowest of passages into our world of life. The pregnant woman and the man at sea must each conquer that “fear.” The more I contemplate that parallel, the more it makes sense to me. And in each case, death has always stood near at hand. In my own culture, most of us got here by long passage across the sea, and most of us arrived by vaginal delivery. Even in spite of scientific progress, the vestiges of that ordeal aren’t too far under the surface. We contemplate it with a great respect.   

Going down

One ‘going down’ is our suffering. The Latin roots (sub+ferro - to carry from underneath, like the original automobile undercarriage upon which rests the chassis) speak of a descent. The primary mental health analog is depression - the painful descent into a mental ordeal that can suck any joy and meaning out of one’s daily rounds.

Failed hopes

The intense private suffering of a couple in an unhappy and deadened marriage is a frequent visitor to my work. Often years in the making, the end result is a desolation of spirit, a loss of hope, and an intense loneliness. I myself sometimes abide much time of blame and counter-blame beforeI can finally distill the intricate patterns that have led to this ordeal of impasse.  

And the antidote for any hope: a further going down within themselves, to personally and painfully account for that which eroded the bonds and covenants that contained the original promises. Then the next task is to withdraw the blame and projections in order to face and share one’s own culpabilities. 

Marriage itself is an ordeal. Some say to me, “we just weren’t prepared for marriage.” I say in response, “only marriage can teach us to be married.” We didn’t know how to “suffer” (support from beneath) the lessons of two persons wrestling out a relationship formed by love, respect and discipline. The wedding doesn’t actually “make” fully a marriage, but it does “mark” the public place where the lifelong work of building one begins. I’ll often comment that wrestling out a marriage is possibly the hardest task we ever undertake - an ever-shifting garden or jungle of blessing and ordeal.  

[Well, then for some there’s also being the parent of a teenager….]

And when the marriage enters my office door, the work of ordeal is often double or tripled in intensity to wrestle out the hope of a break-through to what has been lost. There are times when the proper ordeal becomes the suffering to let the marriage go, bearing often the ordeals that may well be handed down to our children.

Going down as the key to life

I’m reminded there’s no promise that life will be easy. It can be very good, but it is rarely easy.  The actress Helen Hayes, was interviewed on TV years ago by the late Leo Buscaglia about her newly published autobiography (1968). He said to her, “It seems, Miss Hayes, from reading here, you haven’t had a happy day in your life.” Her response was, “You’re right, but I’ve had some marvelous moments!” (recalled from memory). 

My promise to those who work with me is not that I can just stop their suffering, but that I trust and help that what they are currently undergoing can also be the way to a more fully lived life. And life lived to the fullest is my own trusted focus and raison d'être. 


I do not desire ordeals or suffering for any soul, and know I will be judged for any I have caused another. But when they are present, for whatever reason or reasons, I hope to offer my own trust, the professional skills I have garnered, and the fellowship of my own life purpose, toward their own fullness of life.

I trust and offer my own life blessings and ordeals toward this purpose; and enjoy the company of those who enrich my own life as we each make the journey forward.

I hope this is helpful to those of you, my readers, who must also suffer the ordeals of life.


Pay attention

Comments (2)

  • Great analogy

    I appreciated the sailor and expectant mother analogy.

    — Askalice, 10/2/2014
  • You're Right

    Raising teenagers is as hard or harder than staying married. I like the sea and pregnancy analogy also and appreciate the fact that we have to go back to the point of when the suffering began to get passed it. So many want to “brush it under the rug”, and we cannot move forward like that.

    — Barbara Davis, 11/17/2014

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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