The old man stood on the deck of his small boat and looked out at the ocean. He had been sailing for several days now, and the water seemed to meet the sky in all directions. Being out on the water by himself, with nothing but the fish he caught to keep him company, he had plenty of time to think and reflect. At this particular moment, he was thinking about the horizon.
The old man knew that somewhere, in just about every direction, far beyond what he could see, there was land. He knew that there was more to the world than the deep blue that held his craft afloat. Sometimes, however, it was hard to believe that was true. When the sun became too strong and his stomach began to grumble, he would occasionally despair that this was all there was. He would entertain the thought that the only things that truly existed were his boat and the water. Even though he had lived his entire life on the mainland, he wondered sometimes whether that had all been a dream or an illusion.
Staring out across the sea, he watched the waves roll about, and he began to speak aloud.
“How much of my life has been an illusion, I wonder? How much of what I know is true? How much of my perception of reality is imagined and fabricated within my own mind?”
Seeing his rod and reel begin to bounce, he reeled in a particularly stubborn fish; the old man paused his query as he pulled the creature from its home. Unhooking it from the line, he looked it in the face and said, “Fish, tell me: did you know that there was a whole other world up above the water? Or did you believe that the only things that were true were what you could see? Can you tell me of things I cannot see? Can you help me perceive what is real? No? Ah, well; I am quite hungry, and you will make a fine meal.”
The old man threw the fish in a bucket and stepped to the bow of the boat. He stared silently out at the reflection of the setting sun on the water. After a moment, he held his hands out wide, and began to pose his questions to the sky.
“I have lived a long time; there are those in my town who believe that I have lived long enough to know everything there is to know. Yet I am unsure that I know anything at all. I am unsure of my sanity; how can I know that what I see is true and not simply a figment of my imagination? How can I be sure that my reality is more than shadows dancing on a cave wall? How can I know anything?
“I feel that everything I know is wrong. As I look around, I begin to question whether the sand and the shores exist at all. I cannot see them; all I see is water all around me. Have I always been on this boat, and imagined my home? Am I imagining this boat, and am wandering around my home, eyes open yet unseeing? Is my perception wrong?
“Perhaps this is what drives men mad. Perhaps when we realize that we do not see the entire picture, we lose our minds. Indeed, it is hard to comprehend that there are things I cannot ever see, and yet those things somehow affect and influence me every day. I breathe without thinking, and I never see my breath except on a cold day; yet the day I cease to breathe is the day I am no more.
“How does a man continue to live in confidence if he is aware that there is so much he will never know? How can anyone make a strong decision but lack so much information? We are blind fools, stumbling around making wild assumptions about the world around us.”
The old man paused, again taking time to admire the last of the sunset, and then walking back to his seat. He was quiet a while longer, pondering his existence as the stars slowly poked through the darkening sky. He prepared his fish, and as he ate he posed his dilemma to the night sky.
“I simply want to know. Ever since I was a boy, I have only ever wanted to know things. As a child, I asked my mother ‘Why?’ more times than she could bear. As I grew, I sought knowledge from other sources, asking ‘how,’ ‘where,’ and ‘who,’ to every stranger in the street. Now, as an old man, I feel my questions have gone unanswered. Now the only question I have left to ask is, ‘will my answers ever come?’ Will I ever truly know? Is it possible to know anything at all, or am I an ant, incapable of understanding and knowing the world due to my size?
“Am I so small that the answers to my questions are too big for me? Is my life too short for me to hear the answers in their entirety? Am I too blind to see the truth, or too deaf to hear the reply? Perhaps it is not that everything I know is wrong; perhaps it is simply that everything I know is incomplete. Perhaps it is our fate to accept the things we cannot know, despite the inescapable desire to seek answers. Perhaps our eyes and our minds are too small to grasp the scope full perspective would provide. Perhaps even in my old age I have never learned to accept my own limitations. I am, after all, just a man.”
The night was silent, yet the stars seemed to wink in response to the old man’s words. He smiled to himself as he stood and stretched. Looking up to the sky one last time, he took a deep breath.
“Alas, it is time for me to sleep. In the morning, I shall continue to ask questions, and the sun shall refuse to speak. I expect we will continue our sublime dance until I arrive back home and beyond. Someday, I expect to achieve my answers; tonight, however, I must rest.”
Stepping below deck, the old man laid down to sleep. A soft breeze blew across the water, and the moon’s reflection rippled silently upon the surface. Still, the water kissed the sky as they met at the horizon in all directions. In the distance, if you closed your eyes and listened with all your might, you could hear it: a gull. You know what they say about seagulls…