I encountered the following in the blog Ramblings and was struck by what a thought-provoking metaphor it is for life:
Paddling upstream might get you where you want to go. Drifting downstream will get you wherever the river wants to take you.
What often occurs when I encounter such profundities has happened again: my aging brain springs to life and begins to churn out myriad thoughts (e.g. for the metaphor to work, is there an understanding that one has a choice as to whether one must enter the river at its source, at its mouth, or somewhere in between?), which inevitably led me to where I sit at this moment in front of my laptop composing a post. This is probably not a generous act of sharing on my part; rather, I know that if I don’t sort the thoughts and get them out of my mind and into my computer, there is a high probability that I will have to endure a restless night.
Given the opportunity to discuss the above metaphor with Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), I suspect he would bestow a beneficent smile upon me, recommend I adopt an attitude like the effortless floater in the photo below, and just go with the flow.
Three things about the Buddha’s probable advice: (1) going with the flow would be easy if, like the Buddha, I were sufficiently esteemed to be able to sit beneath a tree (or float down a river) and have my daily needs attended to by devoted followers; (2) I am one of the minority of men of European descent whose body density is such that I cannot effortlessly float; (3) the image below indicates one of the possibilities that could be encountered during a float down the uncharted river that is my life.
I’ve been tweeting over the past months and have accumulated likeminded followers (having followed the same), which is an interesting flock that includes a large number of writers found on a spectrum, with those almost on the verge of actually starting their first manuscripts at one end, and seasoned writers who actually have contracts with publishing houses at the other end. How this is related to the metaphor is that many of these writers are young (at least, appreciably younger than me), and many do not seem to know what it is they do not know about the uncharted rivers that are their lives.
For those of us who have paddled seventy years or more, some of us have reached places where we may have wanted to go, but to extend the metaphor, I can testify to this inevitable reality: if death does not preempt it, a paddler eventually runs out of physical and/or emotional energy. When that happens, a paddler succumbs to the current, and at that moment, she becomes a floater, her life course is reversed, and she begins to drift back down the river.
At least for awhile, what the floater sees lining the banks of her life will have changed little from what she remembers having passed while paddling upstream, but she will soon discover that the “ravages of time” have altered the banks of the river. It is not long before there is little that is familiar on the banks bordering the floater’s River of Life, and if time allows, she will eventually find herself floating into “the valley of darkness.”
It seems to me that the place upstream on the River of Life to which some of us are or have been driven to paddle is deeply rooted in the need to create something: i.e. visual, musical, or literary art, a business enterprise, a notable career, or having one’s name on a library at Yale.
17,000 years ago, humans were creating images on cave walls at Lascaux in France, which suggests that acts of creation have been a prehistoric human need. There is no doubt that the act of creating something can provide an ego-boosting sense of accomplishment that is intrinsically motivating, but is there something deeper that motivates us? Aren’t some of us (many of us?) worried that when we die, there will be no evidence that we have existed? Do I write novels and blog because some part of me wants to leave something on the banks of the River of Life as evidence for future paddlers and floaters that declares I have, in fact, existed? Or am I making a desperate effort to counter death with a deluded longing for immortality?
Despite a part of me that wishes it were not so, I realized long ago, given the incredibly insignificant speck of stardust that is earth–I think I was around twelve and with paper and pencil had calculated and compared the relative size of the earth to that of the sun–I was correspondingly so insignificant as to be, relatively speaking, non-existent. Despite that of which I was well aware when I was twelve, I have chosen to paddle upstream to get where I wanted to go for most of my life, and why? Because I think I fell prey to the ego-driven and delusional need that Walt Whitman once characterized as a “barbaric yawp.”*
I acknowledge that each of us does have a significance, albeit nonexistent in the scope of the Universe, but significant to the transient relationships we have with others who float or paddle by us on the river that is life.
As I write this, one person’s existence—Vladimir Putin’s existence—does have immediate significance to 44,000,000 Ukrainians, as well as indirect significance (at least for now) to billions of others who live on the tiny, tiny, tiny “spaceship” earth. It is almost a certainty that what is happening to Ukrainians is the result of the psychotic need of an egomaniacal kleptocrat** to create a larger and more powerful Russia that he believes will be permanent evidence of his existence. The insanity of such a delusion is two-fold. First, how often does the name Iry-Hor, who lived a mere five millennia ago, arise in conversation among the 7,753,000,000 humans currently living on our infinitely small orb? Second, in the scope of time and distance in the universe, Vladimir Putin’s paddle up the River of Life, is of so little consequence as to be nonexistent.
Paddling upstream for over seven decades has taken me to some of the places where I have wanted to go: I have had an interesting career as an educator, my wife and I have created a comfortable life, and my writing has provided much in the way of satisfaction when I reread works I have created. But it is beginning to feel as though I have shipped my oars, and as I use my writing as a way to record what I see as I drift back down the River of Life—not knowing if I have 24 minutes or 24 years remaining on my voyage—there is much that has changed along the river banks, and there is little that resembles what I remember from my exhausting paddle upstream; nonetheless, there is little I can recall from that journey that I regret. One thing the journey on the river has taught me is to see and enjoy and share as much as I can before my float downriver ends.
And one other thing: I have decided that for the metaphor to work, one must assume that one enters the River of Life somewhere between its mouth and its source. And with that decided, I can logoff with the hope that I will experience a peaceful night’s rest as I continue floating down the river that is my life…
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*In “Song of Myself, 52” by Walt Whitman: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
**A kleptocrat is an autocrat who uses political power to steal his or her country’s resources.
The image of the Lascaux cave paintings is from Steve Chatterton’s 12/5/2017 blog post, “What the Lascaux Cave Paintings Tell Us About the Nature of Human Desire.” The featured image by Jamie Johannsen, the image of the floating woman from StockSnap, and the kayaker in trouble from PublicDomainPictures are all copyright-free images from Pixabay. There is no intention of copyright infringement on the part of the blogger nor any intention to monetize the use of the images.