You cannot make mud settle and water become clear, you can only wait for it to do so.
“Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
until the right action arises by itself?”
Tao Te Ching, 15
I’ve always been fascinating by a certain mechanism that comes after sickness or extreme pain. You know this process, though perhaps you’ve never given it attention before.
You’re sick, and everything’s excruciating. You cannot breathe, or you have no energy. A fever is ravishing through your body, your throat is sore, your stomach revolting against anything you offer it. You cannot sleep, or you cannot do anything else but sleep.
You think it will never end.
Or something awful is happening to you, or to those around you. Everything is panic, crisis, fear and anxiety coursing through you, bleeding through your every expression. Those you care for cannot bear what is happening, their shoulders breaking just like yours.
It’s all too much, and you cannot imagine a moment when it won’t be.
But then it’s over, and what was the worst thing imaginable is suddenly an inaccessible memory, a ghost of a recollection. We can conjure to our minds what it felt like to be in pain, but we cannot actually recollect the pain itself. We remember the crisis was terrible, but nothing we do to hold its terror in our hearts again will ever suffice.
You know this process, though perhaps you doubt a bit what I say is true. If so, then try this. Try to remember the worst pain you’ve ever experienced, and try to inhabit that feeling again, to feel what you felt, how really horrifying it all was.
You can get close, of course. Much like delving into your most lush memories of sexual encounters, you might be able to feel aroused again but you cannot actually replicate exactly what it was like. Or like the best meal of your life, or the most glorious day at the beach or in the forest—you can only feel what it was like to have had that experience, but cannot feel the experience itself.
There are technical and psychological terms for this process, and also a few esoteric ones, but my favorite word for this process is settling.
Settling is a word that comes from two completely different roots which intertwined later. If you’ve read my essay, “A Plague of Gods,” you’ve already seen one such example: “property,” which derives from two different Latin words which came to be pronounced the same way in Middle French and thus merged.
Settling comes from two old words, one from Anglo Saxon (“Old English”) setl and the other one from old Norse satt (which later became sahtlen). The two words have different original means which work in a complementary way.
Setl was “a seat,” which the extra meaning of home or abode, and was used to describe both a place a person might sit but also the position a star, the moon, or a planet held in the night sky. Satt was also a noun, but it meant “reconciliation,” as in after an argument or war.
These two meanings carry over into our modern English usage of the word settle. The first of those meanings continues to refer to the act of sitting or being at rest, as in when we speak of settlers and settlements, or when we say that ‘my stomach has settled’ or ‘the cat settled down for an afternoon nap.’ The second meaning, from the old Norse, inhabits the word when we speak of a court settlement, or say “we need to settle this.”
This latter meaning has led to a rather negative connotation1 that only arose in English during World War II. From that point, the word also began to be used to describe the act of accepting less than you want, as in “settling for a lower wage,” which is in fact a kind of opposite meaning of the core word,2 which held various connotations of contentment.
Regardless, I think settling is the best word for the process I described earlier. One of the reasons for that lies in settling’s inverse, “unsettling.” Something is unsettling when it disturbs you, puts you out of a sense of ease, pulls you from a state of rest, or literally forces you from your seat.
Unsettling maintains one of the otherwise lost meanings of the Old English word setl, that of celestial bodies having a true “seat” somewhere in the sky. Earthquakes are unsettling specifically because the earth itself is unsettled. Major disasters (from Latin, “ill star”) are unsettling because the world and the heavens themselves seem to be shaken up. Unsettling things disturb us (again, Latin, meaning “disorder” or “agitate”).
All this points to a rather beautiful aspect of ancient Pagan cosmology that mirrors a core truth in Taoism. Before Christianity arrived, and even centuries into Christianity’s transformation of society around universalist creeds, Europe’s pagans believed that each celestial body had its own purpose by mere virtue of being where it was. That is, each star in the sky had a seat there, and that’s where it as “at home,” where it was most able to be itself and therefore why it was there.