An acquaintance casually told me this the other day during a conversation about her life, as though it was a self-evident, universal truth. In fact, the sentiment may have blown out the back of my head, that’s how revolutionary, novel and resonant it sounded to me. Talk about the right words at the right time. I’d been dealing with some unwanted change and conflict in my relationships (which are, as an extreme extrovert, the center of my world) that were causing me some major emotional upheaval. If you know me outside this blog, you understand how rather emotionless and flat I tend to be day to day. We joke about it, even. So being inside an intense emotional storm is uncharted territory for me, and I was struggling. I consider myself a woman of action, full-bore, straight-ahead, take no prisoners, let’s fucking DO this. This way of being has mostly rescued me and moved me toward a good life. But right now it wasn’t working.
“But you know, you don’t push the river”, she tossed off, telling me about her decision not to move out of state and begin a new life. Her words hit me between the eyes like a nine pound sledge hammer. POW! I felt magnificently dazed, reeling with this new, beautifully obvious information. Not deciding on a course of action and not getting going are options after surveying the situation? Whoa. Suddenly a new way was clear. One where observation isn’t always a means to a reactive end. One where letting go and moving with the current is a valid choice, not a sign of passive (and therefore powerless) acceptance. For a staunch atheist who is in recovery for alcoholism without the 12 steps (because I simply won’t turn over my will to some force outside myself) not pushing the river is a radical idea.
When I was a little girl, I remember my dad saying to me, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. We were usually cooking or baking together, me in a tiny apron, standing on a kitchen step stool beside him. The recipe would become challenging, or maybe just having a four year-old as sous chef was difficult, and he would say the affirmation in a determined, positive tone. He’s a self-proclaimed man of action, and I am his child. When we want change, we make it happen, period. When it’s not working, we find a way. We make it work, one way or another. We call it self-made. Others might call it stubborn. But really, getting going has worked out for me, most of the time. And I’ll admit, I get off on looking tough. So that sentiment has pretty much ruled my life.
But what of the times I’ve stood up to my hips in the river, facing away from the flow, staggering forward against a relentless current? There have been many. My deep-seated problems with authority. Exploring black-out drinking. Fiercely pursuing someone to whom I’m attracted until they see no choice but to surrender. Desperate attempts to fit in where I do not. In these cases there seemed to be a critical disconnect between the force of purpose and consideration of outcome. I’d jump in to a course of action with both feet (you’d never call me tentative or calculating), the strength of my iron will propelling the trudge upstream. If you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor, there I’d be, all the way back to the dry, rocky creek bed where the river begins, barren and lacking any sort of flow. This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? At no point during the struggle upstream had I thought of where, exactly this was all heading. I was too focused on the course. I’d get fired, or fed up and quit. I’d wake up hungover with no memory of what I’d done. We’d go on a date and I’d realize I was no longer attracted. I’d fake myself so hard I’d end up in near total social isolation. Sigh.
You don’t push the river.
I’m going to try it. Next time I have a wild impulse (because they almost always are) to take up some big campaign of action, I’m going to consider the river. Struggle isn’t the same as effort. Being in motion isn’t the same as making progress. And taking 100% of life into one’s own hands, without space for the unknown or unexpected can become an absolute grind. Believe me, I know. I’m going to see what happens if I try out the flow, moving swiftly downstream, conserving my energy for the surprises along the way.