We are born onto an assembly line, handed from institution to institution graded on what we should know and indirectly taught what we should value. The steady hum of the line defines our lives and purpose. Either through life circumstances or by eventually graduating high school, we are finally cast out into an ocean and expected to swim.
Our surival tools 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. The combination of all of these influences form the ideological river we swim in, and it’s always easiest to go with the flow.
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”. 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 (but unhappy) peak in their lives and have 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 always 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 being able to follow this stream to financial success is the most powerful effect 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. That’s because my path was blessed by a white-male obsessed system. Luck had a lot to do with it.
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. I realized I did not enjoy the grind. I wasn’t happy. I didn’t care about accumulating stuff, and there was nothing else to motivate me.
I think most people that go with the flow in this way find themselves with degrees that didn’t want or don’t use, debt that paid for it, and jobs they hate. They might even be in a relationship that makes them uphappy or have kids they never wanted. These people may feel as if they have no way out; they are socially, financially, and emotionally trapped.
My (financial) success allowed me to step 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 it to see where the river will take you. It’s not an option everyone has, but if you have it, take it. If you’re already stagnant, walk yourself over to the shore and evaluate where you want to be.
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 that flow, 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. Give it early, before the trap closes.