Taking it to the river

by Shachi D. Shantinath, Ph.D.

Originally published in the Basler Zeitung English Section, 2001.

“The Rhine is my river,” said Karl – a friend and colleague – to me earlier this summer as we met for an impromptu picnic on the banks of the Rhine in the St. Alban Quarter of Basel. “No matter where I go, I always return to the Rhine as a source of comfort and stability in my life.

When I am upset or sad, I go and talk with the Rhine.”

Curious, I wanted to know more. “Getröstet” (comforted) is the word he used when describing how he feels when he sees the river.

“I give my worries to the Rhine. I let it carry them away and then I feel better.”

Looking at Karl, one would never imagine that such a man – 55 years old, a well-established physician in his community – would actually talk to a river. But he told me that it works for him.

“And when I listen closely, I can even hear the Rhine talking back to me, just like in the novel Siddhartha by Hesse,” he added. “Do you remember the wise ferryman who said if you pay attention, you can learn to hear what the river says and derive wisdom from it?”

Later as the summer went on, I stepped onto one of the Rhine ferries by chance. Perhaps it was Karl’s comments. Out for an early morning walk along the Rhine, I happened to see the ferry near St. Alban. Getting on it seemed to be the right thing to do at that moment.

It was empty as I got on. Only the ferry man and I.

“Do you mind if I wait until more people come?” he asked me. “Or are you in a hurry to get to the other side?”

“No hurry,” I replied, happy to just sit in the boat and watch the river from yet another perspective, which was about as close to the water as I could get without actually going into it.

It was a slow morning and we talked as we waited for other passengers.

“Where are you from? What do you do?” he asked me.

When he learned that I am a psychologist, he said with a restrained smile, “I am a kind of psychologist too.

He told about how people talked with him as they crossed the river on their way to work or home. “A lot of people tell me about their worries. I don’t know what it is about the river that makes them want to talk about their problems. I tell them – give your worries to the river – and then they feel better.”

Listening to him talk reminded me of the ferryman in Siddhartha. Had he read it?

“Yes, I read it a long time ago,” he replied.

“What do you think of the ferryman in the novel?” I asked him.

“My family name is an old German word for ferryman. Interesting isn’t it? My name means ferryman and that is what I do now.”

And with that he told me a bit about his life and work before becoming a ferryman. As he talked, it occurred to me that he was more of a philosopher than a psychologist. He said he had once been a slave in a job. Then he became self-employed and became his own slave. But now that he worked on the Rhine, he had found freedom from inner slavery.

I felt as if I had stepped into Hesse’s novel…

Later, I told Karl about my encounter with the Ferryman.

“You see, my ideas are not so strange,” said Karl.

I recalled an earlier conversation Karl and I had about the novel Siddhartha. He told me that when he first read it, years ago, he identified with the main character – a young man who was uneasy and searching for answers. As he read the novel, he pictured the Rhine in his mind’s eye, though the story was ostensibly set somewhere in Asia. While he always drew comfort from visiting the Rhine, after reading the novel, he began to try to listen to the river, to hear what it might have to say.

At first, listening to the Rhine seemed like a strange idea. But now, after meeting the philosophical ferryman named “Ferryman” – everything seemed possible. Everything – including talking to the river and listening to what it has to say.

Could it be possible that Hesse derived part of his inspiration for his novel from his time in Basel? After all, the ferries have been in operation for over a hundred years. Surely there must have been other philosophical ferrymen who also advocated giving one’s worries to the Rhine.

I haven’t spoken with the ferryman since then, though I have been meaning to. But in the meantime, Karl and I have talked a few times, most recently in the wake of world events. He lives in the Black Forest, not far from Basel, and worries, like many others, about the political and economic instability that lie ahead.

He wrote me the following recently: “It is time to visit the Rhine again… time to give it my worries and hear what it has to say.”

I wondered how many others come to the Rhine and give it their worries. How many others hear it speak to them.

The past few weeks have been filled with sad and unhappy events that were beyond one’s imagination. If bad things can happen that are beyond one’s imagination, then why not good things?

The ferrymen – both in the novel and in real life – found peace and comfort in the Rhine. Perhaps others can too.

Copyright S.D. Shantinath, Ph.D. All rights reserved.