Those famous words come from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem in which he describes a sailor who, stranded in the middle of the ocean, is dying of thirst even while completely surrounded by water.
We all know (at least from watching Tom Hanks in Cast Away) that human beings should never drink seawater.
For a brief moment it satisfies. Then it kills you. But why?
Only 2.7% of the Earth’s supply of water is fresh. And 90% of that is essentially unavailable to us because it’s bound up in ice.
That leaves more than 97% of the world’s H2O to fill the oceans. Seawater, the world over, is approximately 3% saline.
The human body actually requires a small amount of salt to function. We can also ingest generous amounts of salty foods from time to time, which is why the potato chip industry appears to be in no serious danger of folding any time soon.
Our kidneys have been assigned the crucial role of flushing excess salt from the body.
But there’s a problem. The kidneys cannot make urine that is more than 2% salty. If we continually ingest water that is 3% saline, our kidneys will need to “borrow” water from other parts of the body in order to dilute it. That leads to a wicked irony: the more seawater we drink, the more dehydrated (and thirstier) we become – leading to even more desperate gulps of seawater.
As a rule of thumb, human beings can go three minutes without air, three days without water, and three months without food.
When people stranded on the high seas are driven insane by thirst, they may finally give in and sample the “water, water everywhere.” That puts them on a sure and certain death spiral, even as they think they might be saving themselves.
During times of significant workplace stress, working harder can be like drinking seawater.
At first it satisfies. I have so much to do. This stress is killing me. If I push a little harder, just for a week or two, I know I can get caught up.
But working harder is not the cure for “hurry sickness,” that crippling disease of the spirit that plagues so many of us.
At first it satisfies. But then it kills us.
God’s antidote is utterly counter-cultural: STOP.
Carve out at least one daily cease-and-desist “appointment,” and protect it fiercely. Find a quiet place to sit for 15 minutes and live out Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Our job at such times is not to figure something out, or learn something new, or do anything at all. Simply be still and know that God is God, and we are not.
In such moments it will increasingly dawn on us that we’re not really thirsty, in the end, to work harder.
We’re actually thirsty for the One who made us for himself.
And if we let him, he will make sure we’re satisfied.
— Authored by Glenn McDonald
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