What if your existence sat in a groove in time, and that groove flowed like a river?
It's a contrarian view in a culture that instead ascribes the meaning of life to that of climbing a mountain.
The mountain places us in a fight against the elements. We traverse varied terrain, cross invisible thresholds into thinning air, scrambling to adjust to rapidly changing conditions and push higher up the mountain until we reach elevations that can no longer sustain life. They call this "the death zone."
Atop the mountain, we receive a view that is sublime and rare. A deep sense of fulfillment sets in that temporarily soothes our exhaustion and discomfort. We're one of the rare few that's pushed this hard and this high into the solitude of thin air.
After briefly sitting with the view and resting in our accomplishment, we're reminded of how untenable the situation is. Our limbs are heavy and grow numb. We gasp for air between dry coughs. Our energy fades despite the momentary exhilaration offered by the peak.
We cannot stay at the top of the mountain for very long. Thirty minutes? Maybe an hour? The mountaintop was meant to be glimpsed and then let go of. Only ancient stone can remain there.
Survival mandates that we turn around and make our descent. We hope we saved enough for the return home. Of all of the people that have died climbing Everest, nearly half of them met their fate on the way down. We don't want a similar fate.
For those that survive the ascent and descent, and haggardly stumble their way home, the temporary joy of reaching the top is bookended with a deep need for rest. The climb took its toll. We don't have many climbs like this in us. Maybe one? Maybe two? Maybe none.
Compare that to the river.
The river bends its way down the mountain toward increasingly hospitable land. It flows effortlessly over rocks and around fallen trees toward a destination that can't yet be seen, but that we intuitively know to be safe since water always flows in the direction of least resistance. Water looks for wide open spaces and seeks a lower ground to settle, with life taking root along its edges until it explodes in abundance at the water's final resting place.
If we were to paddle down the river and allow it to take us, we would find that it has a rhythm to it. At times, the water gets choppy, yet stillness always follows. Curving from left to right, sometimes turbulent yet sometimes calm, the river moves intentionally to a place it's trying to take us so long as we allow it to.
When the rapids build, we tense up. The tension heightens the risk, and sometimes we get thrown overboard. Frantic in the whitewash, our instinct is to put up a fight in a futile attempt to overpower the river and save ourselves. Yet our resistance to the flow of the river has the opposite effect. Resistance puts us in danger.
We expend our energy in an attempt to move against the river's will, and in doing so we exhaust ourselves and succumb to the river's turbulence. Like the climbers that didn't save enough for the return home, we succumb due to our resistance.
Instead of fighting the current, we can learn to relax and flow with it. The river knows where it's going. And if you surrender to it, accepting the river's direction, you'll begin to move gracefully downstream, sliding past rocks and debris, until the turbulence subsides and calm waters welcome you to your destination.
Our life can be understood through the comparison of the mountain and the river.
Earlier in life, my eyes were fixed on finding new summits. Peaks offered peak experiences with rare and wonderful views. Yet with age and wisdom, I learned that life couldn't be sustained in the uninhabitable lands of hard-to-reach peaks. The peaks defined my past, but they wouldn't define my future.
I also learned to admire the river and to seek its guidance. By surrendering to its flow, I could find my way toward a more peaceful and hospitable place where life flourishes. And from that lower valley flush with abundance, I could look back and admire the peak from a distance, thanking it for the rare experience it offered me, yet vowing to never return to the place that nearly drained me to the point of non-existence.
Peaks are for the young, unwise, and hungry. Rivers are for the mature, wise, and absolved. Both can be navigated so long as you learn to surrender to their unbeatable resistance. One offers momentary peaks. The other offers lasting calm and solace. Together, they make up the landscape of a life.
"An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.” — Bertrand Russell