When you dip your toes in the waters of temptation, it's important to consider the chain of events you may have set into motion
Every day we arrive at the shore of life with an ocean of choices. Some days we arrive fresh-faced and eager, ready to tackle whatever dilemmas come our way. Most days, however, we trudge to this shore full of the murky sludge that is our insecurities, prejudices, and various personal demons. This sludge in question is the kind of sludge an espresso from Starbucks will not dissolve and a daily scripture reading will not dislodge. Because of the precariousness of our nature, our moments of impulsivity, fearlessness or terror, we are often warned when facing decisions or milestones to simply “dip our toes in the water.” Many times, we follow this seemingly solid advice, saying to ourselves “It’s such a small step. What can it hurt?” Small choices are safe, we say to ourselves. I’ve come to believe that this old adage and its accompanying perspective is as dangerous as it gets. Let me tell you why.
We are lulled into acceptance of this belief by a thousand supposedly insignificant moments of decision-making. Take, for instance, a woman at the hairdressers. Pondering, in a moment of midlife crisis and marital slump, whether to get a rebellious streak of Bordeaux that playfully peeks out from her otherwise virgin hair, her forty- year old realist argues, “It will fade in a few weeks if I don’t like it” or “I can always dye it back.” True, yes, but not entirely. What if that strand is luminous, as intoxicating as the wine itself? What if her newfound confidence makes her see her life in a whole new way? What if it makes her see her husband’s receding hairline and her quiet life as somehow less desirable than it was before? Fast forward two months to separation or, at least, a well- built wall of resentment at a life that used to be idyllic.
The point is, no choice, however small, is harmless. It ripples through our psyche and drenches the world we live in in a thousand ways. This brings to mind the principles of chaos theory, a scientific term for the idea that random or arbitrary occurrences can have unpredicted and dramatic effects on otherwise logical and expected processes in the realm of science and math. This philosophy was in was in large part started by a discovery Edward Lorenz made that was later famously labeled “the butterfly effect.” Lorenz was studying weather phenomena at this time, and the results of his study proved that, beyond a relatively short period of time, weather forecasts cannot be accurately predicted. He even went so far as to say that the gentle flapping of a butterfly’s wings could create a monumental weather event in another country. His studies validated that nature is a highly complex system, far too intricate and ever-shifting to be wholly understood at one point in time.
Can we not say this of the complex web of human action and interaction? At any one point in time, we can “dip our toes” into another’s world and change the very future itself — both for the person who we interacted with and for ourselves as well.
What about a workplace attraction between two coworkers married to other people? As humans, we crave excitement as much as we crave security, and this need for a tingle of titillation makes us dip our toes in the wrong place, many times, as a matter of fact, into shark infested waters. It all begins with that tingle, spurring us on at times for just a taste of the euphoria that we somehow feel has slipped away from our lives. Without even direct recognition of the fact that we are edging close to these wavelets of danger, we do seemingly harmless things like change our appearance. Slipping into a pair of heels or a leg revealing skirt, we convince ourselves that we are still innocent at heart. We only want the validation of a look of interest, a simple compliment, that will fill our empty tanks of intrigue.
One “hungry look” at me from him will be enough, we say. I can live off that and carry its seeds of heat back to the open arms of my husband, we say. Fools, we are. Liars to the very people we need to be honest to-ourselves. The truth is, one “hungry look” and we want more. Perhaps, we think, I suggest we meet at lunch to go over the project at work. Just a simple lunch, we say. All business, of course. At least I get to spend time with him, one on one. That will be enough, we say. Maybe I can say something particularly ingenious that will convince him I am smart, creative, worthy of the scraps of attention that are all I want from him. Just scraps, we say. Not a passion fueled kiss or a trip to extra-marital meanderings. Just a scrap. Again, we find our toes “hungry,” needing to feel that dreamy water of exhilaration one more time. As Kurt Vonnegut says, “And so it goes.” And goes, I might add emphatically.
A classic tale of the dangers of “dipping one’s toes” is seen in William Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece.” Sextus Tarquinus, son of the king, overhears a Roman soldier talking about the unparalleled chastity and beauty of his wife Lucretia. Enamored with the woman he now “knows” only through word of mouth, Tarquin, as he is called, travels to her home, just to see if this angelic vision in his head meets his imaginings. She, a paragon of beauty and grace, is all that he envisions and more. He begs her company, wanting, he says, only to tell her of the magnificent feats of valor and honor that her husband shows on the battlefield. She offers him shelter for the night, where he lies twisting and turning in a tangle of passion. This passion is so great that he accosts her in her chamber and rapes her.
The text states of his initial desire to see her that “some untimely thought did instigate his all-too-timeless speed.” One “untimely thought,” one “dip of the toes,” leads to a woman violated, a leader sullied, and according to the myth, a country in chaos, as the Romans were so disgusted with Tarquin’s actions that they banished the king, the parent of this vicious defiler, and set up their own government.
Lucretia, violated and hopeless, lies awake all night tormented with the disgrace of the event. She curses Time, personifying it as a villain that can never take back its actions. She states, “Why work’st thou mischief in thy pilgrimage unless thou could’st return to make amends?” She begs him to reconsider her plight and turn back the deeds of the night, saying that if he could only give back “one retiring minute,” it would “purchase [him] a thousand thousand friends.”
Tarquin’s “dip of the toe,” a man of prestige and prominence, reminds us that no one is immune to the dangers of small “untimely thoughts [and actions].” A multitude of murky, forbidding water lies in front of us all and our impulsive voice to “dip our toes” and just “see what happens” can lead to a Pandora’s box of misery.
One bachelorette party where we stuff our wedding rings in our purse just to see if “we still have it.” One drink at the bar soon after to get us loosened up for the festivities of the night. One small-talk tete-a-tete with a stranger next to us at the club. One innocent dance with said stranger, just to not seem like a “poor sport.” One purposeful brush of the shoulder to see if he responds. The list goes on and one, even with only ten toes with which to work.
Once we “dip our toes,” existence writes the action down in its journal of immutable events. Time’s forward only compass requires that we contemplate possibilities before we innocuously “dip our toes” in the waters of change, passion, or temptation. One minute, one choice, one small taste can lead us to places we never imagined. Yes, some of those places are wondrous, but some of those places lead to dark unopened passages with doors that are better left unopened.
Whatever your personal beliefs on this matter, please, please, please dip with caution, my friends. One toe could catapult you to the heights of majesty, but oftentimes, it could also plummet you to the bottom of the sea in pieces.