Once a barnacle weighed the moral pros and cons of letting go. It was comforting to enjoy the security of a stable moral life in clinging fast to one’s pier. Amid the tides that came and went, an anchored existence was a blessing increasingly few could claim. Day after day, the barnacle watched those less resolute than itself lose whatever ethical footing they’d managed to gain in life. Here today and gone tomorrow, “the dust of the sea” they might be judged. Given the same opportunities as itself for moral certainty, they just must not have tried hard enough, the barnacle was convinced. The waters churning around the piles were doubtless filling up with failures of character like these, replaced as soon as they’d disappeared by a new massing of the morally shiftless, to be followed in their own turn by the same again. And yet within that conviction of the barnacle’s lay an unsettling perplexity. In a word, where had all these moral failures eventually gone? And without a trace. To remain “at one’s post to the bitter end” was the fulfillment of a noble life’s command, the equivalent of standing shoulder to shoulder at Thermopylae—on a barnacle scale, of course. Such dedication served as a bulwark against every self-doubt that might pull at one as wave after wave crashed over the pier in a storm and fell back again into the rule-less sea. No doubt about it, the certainty of a solid commitment straight through to the last gave one a definite edge in righteousness when considered this way. An unshakable sense of being virtue’s yeoman at the Battle of Agincourt, as it were, that even a battered barnacle could hold to and feel proud of itself for doing so. But simply to vanish without a trace, that was another matter entirely. Knowing nothing at all about the fate of those who’d been swept away over the years, the barnacle’s mind cast about for answers. They could be anywhere, be doing absolutely anything. Maybe their fortunes had taken a turn for the better. Maybe they’d found a place of second chances and reinvented themselves there, putting behind them the memory of once losing their grip on rock-solid convictions. Or maybe not. They might just as easily have slipped further into the depths. Into utter darkness that surpassed the barnacle’s ability to fathom as a life worth living. But didn’t the fact that nothing was ruled out mean all possibilities remained? And if all possibilities remained, if possibilities beyond calculation still existed, then there must be just as many ways of living and just as many arguments for adopting one or even infinite alternatives to the certainties of the pier. In that case, what confidence could you have about the virtues of the one-and-only life you’d settled on for yourself, or what self-confidence in having been right for holding firm to it through every trial? The barnacle was growing dizzy from the implications of such uncertainty. Was it conceivable that a meaningful existence might not actually require a firm anchor of some sort? Might not require any anchor at all? If you could count on there always being a second chance (or a third or fourth even) to reestablish yourself in a new place, or in new places over and over again, why worry about the consequences of a failure to hold firm from the start? And if you didn’t fear such failure, how could you yourself be counted on never to falter in your adherence to what truly mattered in life: resisting the wayward force of the waves at all costs? When moral certainty and the lure of the unknown pulled you in different directions with equal force, life decisions posed a true dilemma for any self-respecting barnacle, no denying that. Better to stay put, then, and diligently continue hardening one’s resolve against the slightest self-doubt?
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans