One of my undergrad professors once described the solution to most of life’s challenges as the need to “float.”
Life, he said, is like a river, and it has very fast-moving portions, as well as very gentle portions that hardly seem to be moving at all. There are a great many turns and twists, hills and falls, caverns and cliffs, rocks and islands. And we humans, he explained, are essentially all sitting in our own “tubes” as we float down this river.
Going with the flow makes for a pleasant ride.
When we keep ourselves steady and just sort of lean back and let ourselves go with the flow of the river, it tends to be a pretty nice ride. Of course, there are always the bumps into rocks, the storms, and the occasional rapids, and we may have to hold on tightly and hope for the best during those moments, but they’re inevitable in all our journeys down the river. But in general, when we let ourselves “go with the flow,” we let ourselves have a gorgeous journey.
Resisting the river, on the other hand, causes pain and difficulty.
When we fight the flow of the river, we cause turmoil for ourselves. “Imagine,” he said, “you decide that you’re going to paddle upstream. Paddle up the falls you just thrillingly rode down. You try to kick against the current and fight your way completely opposite the flow of the water. How successful will you end up being? And how unpleasant will the experience be while you’re trying this?”
His point, at least as I have always understood it, is that when we allow ourselves the peace of mind described by Neibuhr’s serenity prayer (“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”), we let ourselves go with the flow of the Universe around us, and it tends to be a more peaceful ride.
Resisting exhausts us. The river is unaffected.
To resist the flow of the river doesn’t stop the river from flowing in its direction, it just exhausts us as we paddle against it. Resisting the rapids of the river doesn’t stop us from having to navigate them; it just makes it more likely that we’ll capsize in the middle of them.
The river keeps going while we struggle. It has no attachment to our compliance or our resistance… it just goes. So too with time. So too with those circumstances beyond our control.
When we fight the flow of “the river,” kicking and struggling to make it bend to what we perceive to be the “right” way of moving, we get a lot more bumps, bruises, scrapes, cuts… and, in the end, we still go in the direction the river was moving all along, anyway.
Choosing non-resistance doesn’t mean giving up.
To go with the flow of the river is not the same as giving up or just passively vegetating in your tube. That would be akin to tossing aside your tube in the river and going into dead-man-float pose and hoping you make it out alright. Your results, unsurprisingly, are going to be sub-par.
Navigating your way through the river is also not the same as resisting. You can choose to paddle over so you’re closer to the sunny side of the river, or to direct your tube down the side of the river’s fork that looks the most inviting. Going with the flow isn’t about giving up. It’s about acknowledging what’s within your power to change and what isn’t, and making choices accordingly.
I have forgotten so much of what I learned in college, but I remember the river.
Hearing my professor describe the river metaphor was the first time I really got the meaning of the Serenity Prayer. It’s a metaphor I return to time and again when I realize I’m resisting What Is — and making life exponentially more difficult for myself as a result.
Some ideas just stick with you, and call out to be shared.
I’ll see you on the river, my friend.