Through the Tunnel by William Klein

I am always amazed at how art can imitate life. When you find a simple story with a life clutching action, you are propelled forward to find relevance to it in your life and times. In dark ways as well as enlightened glimpses of “obeyance” to what Ralph Waldo Emerson called “the Almighty effort – advancing on chaos and the dark.”

“Through the Tunnel” by Doris Lessing is one of the greatest short stories I’ve ever read. It’s a coming-of-age tale that tells the story of young boy wanting to be like older boys. He sees boys diving off a part of the rocks and ending up at a distance. The boy realizes that they have mastered the feat of swimming through a dangerous cave. Trying to fit in, he decides to learn to hold his breath so he can swim through the tunnel of a cave and prove his manliness and worthiness to be with them.

I was holding my breath while the character held his, hoping he makes it out of the cave alive. In particular the following passage where the boy is underwater, the boy is counting knowing how many seconds he has before he is doomed. He notes he can hold it between two and three minutes:

“A hundred, a hundred and one . . . The water paled. Victory filled him. His lungs were beginning to hurt. A few more strokes and he would be out. He was counting wildly; he said a hundred and fifteen and then, a long time later, a hundred and fifteen again. The water was a clear jewel-green all around him. Then he saw, above his head, a crack running up through the rock. Sunlight was falling through it, showing the clean, dark rock of the tunnel, a single mussel shell, and darkness ahead. 

He was at the end of what he could do. He looked up at the crack as if it were filled with air and not water, as if he could put his mouth to it to draw in air. A hundred and fifteen, he heard himself say inside his head—but he had said that long ago. He must go on into the blackness ahead, or he would drown. His head was swelling, his lungs cracking. A hundred and fifteen, a hundred and fifteen, pounded through his head, and he feebly clutched at rocks in the dark, pulling himself forward, leaving the brief space of sunlit water behind. He felt he was dying. He was no longer quite conscious. He struggled on in the darkness between lapses into unconsciousness. An immense, swelling pain filled his head, and then the darkness cracked with an explosion of green light. His hands, groping forward, met nothing; and his feet, kicking back, propelled him out into the open sea. 

He drifted to the surface, his face turned up to the air. He was gasping like a fish. He felt he would sink now and drown; he could not swim the few feet back to the rock. Then he was clutching it and pulling himself up onto it. He lay face down, gasping. He could see nothing but a red-veined, clotted dark. His eyes must have burst, he thought; they were full of blood. He tore off his goggles and a gout of blood went into the sea. His nose was bleeding, and the blood had filled the goggles.”

I think about that story and it reminds me of how we face deadly circumstances. We are living in perilous times. I feel as though we are holding our breath under water, struggling to find the way out, grasping for a place to emerge and find the open air. Our social, economic and pandemic quandaries leave me with an uncertainty that cannot be satisfied. Inflation of the dollar, the dominance of Nationalism at home and abroad inciting political tensions and more division, the rising food and gas prices amidst uncertainties of war in places like Ukraine, Myanmar and Sudan. Gun violence at all-time highs and no real political will to quell that noise.

We are on a reef in the cave, submerged in the deep, out of oxygen and needing to get to the top. Our lungs are cracking as the sublime mystery of underwater quiet clutches our being, holding us back from the fullest life we’re called to own and measure with our will to survive.

As was indicated in the story, we have no choice. We must “go into the blackness.” In the words of Joseph Campbell, “You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path.” Carl Jung understood this as well. He said it another way, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

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