There is a common bit of pithy wisdom that says we can never step into the same river twice because it flows and is ever changing. This is probably one of the best analogies for life, itself. This saying came to mind this morning when I came across a passage in the Tao Te Ching.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
A reader could interpret this piece of advice as it seems to say superficially that we should live passively. It may seem to proclaim that we should “go with the flow”. However, we have learned that just living passively or going where the flow flows is a recipe for an unhappy life. We end up doing what everybody else is doing. If we surrender to this simplified interpretation of going with the flow we become “sheeple”.
It seems to me that Lao Tzu meant something more profound than we should live a life of passivity. Like all passages in the Tao Te Ching they were intended to be pondered with expansive discernment. Passages from the Tao are not meant to be used in isolation from other passages.
Pop psychologists are fond of saying that we only need to ask the Universe and all things will be ours. Well, the truth is, the Universe does not have your back. The Universe is infinitely huge and it just flows as it does without any human intervention. Instead of believing that the Universe will help you out, it’s best to understand that it is neutral. Whatever happens in our lives, we own. “It was meant to be” doesn’t have to be our mantra.
There is a danger is using a single metaphor as a pattern to trace our life paths. We must remember that everything is interconnected. If we look at the scale of the Universe, we can see this, too. There are planets orbiting stars just as Earth travels around the Sun. Stars orbit around galactic centers, clusters of galaxies are moving through space, etcetera. Everything seems to flow in perfect harmony.
Again, we need to be careful of framing the Universe in simplistic human concepts because there are rogue elements that throw monkey wrenches into these elegant designs we have conjured up. In our Solar System alone, there are asteroids and comets whooshing around in highly elliptical orbits. One or more might ultimately be on a collision course with the Earth.
The human race could just collectively worry about our fate and accept whatever might come at us. On the other hand, we can use the tools of science to design and build a system to help avert the danger of an incoming asteroid and the end of the world as we know it.
If you picture life as the flow of a river, you might see yourself floating downstream in a boat without a paddle or a rudder. Sooner or later you’re going to hit a snag or a sandbar and get stranded. Thankfully, boats are designed to be used in conjunction with paddles and rudders. So that while we flow down the river, we can steer the boat past snags and sandbars.
To go with the flow also implies that it is unwise to go against the flow. However, sometimes we need to travel upstream, against the flow for good reasons. We have the technology to use mechanical means to power boats against the current of a river. It seems foolish that we wouldn’t take advantage of boat motors when necessary.
Certainly it is often wise to let go of control in many situations because we cannot always predict supposed outcomes. We set ourselves up for disappointment if we expect events to unfold as we wish or if we think people will cooperate with our every plan. Frequently, the best thing to do is accept life and not live in vain.
Again, this does not mean we must helplessly flow through life. We generally anticipate events in our lives to avoid the worst outcomes. Sometimes events flow swiftly at us like a whirlpool that appears out of nowhere. Humans can steer clear of annihilation by heeding warning sirens. If disaster is unavoidable, we buy insurance policies to help us rebuild. Using current terminology, we say that we are being proactive.
So, flow is more complicated than what it seems at first glance. To successfully go with the flow, we need to use the tools we have at our disposal.