I spent a few days at Bethany Beach (in Delaware) this week with four other priests, thanks to some very generous lay people who allowed us to stay in their house. In Washington we speak of going to the beach. But in nearby Baltimore they say, “We’re goin’ down-e-ocean.” I think in New Jersey they call it “going down the shore,” as in the Jersey shore. At any rate, thank God for a restful time, lots of long walks along the shoreline, interesting discussions, and good food. In fact, according to the Scripture story of the road to Emmaus, walking, talking, and dining provide an image of the Kingdom.
A brief thought occurred to me today as I walked along the water, this time alone. I began my walk right in the center of Bethany Beach, just down from the center of the boardwalk. The beach was rather crowded—lots of people, chairs and umbrellas everywhere, kids running back and forth into and out of the water.
As I headed north walking right on the shore, I noticed that the crowd thinned out quite quickly, so that within a hundred yards of where the boardwalk ended the beach became quite empty with just a few folks here and there.
Why, I wondered, did people huddle together so? I would think that people would prefer to spread out a little, would want some privacy, and might be willing to walk a ways to get it. Instead, they crowded together in an eight-block area along the Bethany Beach Boardwalk.
It occurred to me that despite our often-expressed desire for space and privacy, this image of people huddling together had important lessons to teach.
The chief and uniting lesson is that ultimately people need people. Crowding close together at the beach meant that there were others to provide not only company but safety. There were plenty of lifeguards, and if any trouble were to arise, plenty of people nearby to help. Where there are people there are also many conveniences near at hand. There were food vendors up on the nearby boardwalk as well as vendors selling beach gear. There was even a free town Wi-Fi signal in the air. Public bathrooms were nearby as was a safety station and a police presence. A lot of children, some of whom had only just met that day, were playing together, teaching each other to surf, riding boogie boards, or building sand castles.
A simple lesson, really, but somehow beautifully painted for me at Bethany Beach—people need people. People benefit from other people. People take care of other people and provide necessary services, protection, and company. Space and solitude have their place, but it really is more instinctual, even in this wide-open country, to cluster together in cities. For all of our complaints about crowds, in the end it’s good to have other people close at hand.
It was all a painting of what Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:11).