Portaging on the River of Life

We are born onto an assembly line. We are handed from institution to institution where we are graded on what we should know and indirectly taught what we should value. The steady hum of the line makes clear the scope of our lives and purpose. Either through life circumstances or by eventually graduating high school, we fall off the end of that assembly line and are cast out into an ocean and expected to swim.

I think most of us use the values we’ve been indirectly taught as our water wings. These include biases, prejudice, wisdom, logic, and fears. Perhaps we were brought up to value hard, physical labour, or maybe instead we value a deep education in social topics. Our friends may tend in particular directions, our family in others, while the media we consume smears this image together and imparts its own values. When these values intersect with the world, they form a river. The easiest thing to do is to flow with it.

There’s a sort of Zen wisdom in flowing with the current, rather than against it; I think this same wisdom is reflected across cultures. English speakers might know it as “sticking to your knitting”. I don’t think it’s wise to stick with this dictum for your entire life. Too often people are carried to stagnant ponds where they remain for the rest of their lives. I see it in my elders; they’ve reached some comfortable peak in their lives and stopped swimming.

This is a dangerous, relative comfort. It’s only comfortable because doing anything else is scary and painful. It is a comfort that asks: “we’ve gotten this far by going with the flow, why change things now?” It’s the comfort that prevents us from talking to neighbours or trying that new exercise class.

I was self-aware of my tendency to go with the flow and concerned about it, but it was the best option available to me. University seemed like the thing you’re supposed to do based on the influences that were around me. Engineering fit with my biases that value intellectual pursuits that are also practical, again, based on the influences that put that in my head. I applied for and accepted jobs that seemed like I’d be a shoe-in for, and did not look elsewhere. I stuck with companies as long as it felt like the stream was moving and hopped to another when I felt stagnant. Stagnation felt extremely serious to me, and I acted rashly if I felt it.

I think this stream is the most powerful affect of privilege. Some people follow their easy stream to shitty circumstances. There is nothing necessarily good or bad about the easy way; it’s the intersection of the social forces that have shaped us and the world. Your influences may have been harmful, and the world may be extremely unfair to you. That was not true for me. I did pretty well taking the easy path.

Eventually this stream lead me over rapids that I did not want to be on. It was a necessary consequence of my choices, detrimental to my physical and mental health, and predictable, but you don’t predict when you’re taking the easy path.

Two years ago I stepped off that river, cutting off my income. I stopped doing what I was supposed to do. My elders were deeply concerned; and I was told to “stick to my knitting”. Maybe I don’t like knitting. Finally, it feels as if I took my life into my own hands. I stopped moving, but it was a stagnation of my own choice – I stepped out of that river on to the shore and watched everything I should be doing float by. I miss the current, It feels important to flow with it; but I distrust it now.

There is value to going with the flow, but there is also value in taking yourself out of that flow to check a map and see where the river will take you, if you are privileged enough to be able to. If you’re already stagnant, walk yourself over to the shore and evaluate where you want to be.

There’s a funny thing about humans in that change can be very difficult and threatening to us, but if it happens slowly and automatically we don’t mind and ultimately prefer it. This is the seductive appeal of going with the flow. You can have your change and not feel it, too!

If you don’t take responsibility for your path, it will be taken from you. There is no guarantee you will like where you end up. When you live according to the river, you live according to the values and judgments of your family, friends, and society. It won’t make them happy, it only avoids making them uncomfortable. You are responsible for your own happiness. The discomfort your deviance causes others is the discomfort of being reminded that they too, can choose a harder, freer path.

That discomfort is a gift.

By Matthew Scheffel

Matt has been a freelance software developer specializing in gluing incompatible systems together for 10 years. He is also a integration specialist with six years' experience in commercial building automation. Matt develops back-end software that help businesses get the data they need to make better decisions faster.