My memory is not what it was. My face is not what it was. I am changing before my eyes. I didn’t used to look like this; but then they don’t make mirrors like they did. Three years ago I had money. Now I have no money. This morning I was peaceful, at lunch I was impatient, this afternoon I was joyful. Tomorrow will not be a repeat of today, nor will next year be like this one. We are walking, all of us, into the glorious unknown of the rest of our lives. Only two things are certain: it will keep changing, and sooner or later, it will end.
Change happens in every moment. Not just the events of our lives, but the cells in our bodies, our thoughts streaming by, our moods shifting with the tides, even our sense of who we are and where we are going. Sometimes we ache for change and sometimes we dread it. We harbor notions of what is good for us and what is not, and try to organize and strategize accordingly. We like to be in control.
We need to know who we are and where we are going. We like to have structures in place — a family, an income, a job, a place in society — that tell us who we are and give us a sense of worth and meaning. Of course we do, this is hardly a neurotic need for stability and control over our environment — it’s a normally adjusted way of being in the world.
But if the ego, healthy or otherwise, is the only avenue through which we have experienced life, then we will cling to our familiar structures by our fingernails when they are threatened, as they will be, by change. We will desperately want to steer our ship in the direction we want it to go. When the ego won’t let go of what it knows, it becomes hard and brittle. There is no space for any larger view. A brittle ego cannot bow to the larger truth of change.
The ancient Chinese had a saying — ride the horse in the direction it is going. It was an attitude that encouraged cooperation with life, with its variables and unknown quantities, rather than trying to control the outcome in advance. It didn’t mean you merely drifted through life like a leaf in the wind (you were still riding the horse, after all), but it implied that your intention is best served by an open, attentive mind — one that is inclusive of the larger forces of life around it, whatever they may be.
No one wants their life upended. No one is free from fear. But life has scant regard for our control needs. The show goes on, like it or not.
The Chinese saying urges us to join what is already happening; to align ourselves with the fact of change, to flow with it rather than struggle upstream to try and keep things the way they are or to make happen what doesn’t want to happen. It doesn’t mean you need to be a wet rag. You and I are immersed in life; we have a say in it. We have agency, just not all the agency we might like.
“Pour yourself like a fountain,” Rilke says in his Sonnet to Orpheus XII. To pour yourself like a fountain, to ride the horse in the direction it is going, is to choose willingly to cooperate with what is already so. When we struggle against the way things are, we suffer. When a knowing emerges in us that comes from beyond our binary reflex, beyond opposites altogether, and when we have the courage to follow that knowing, regardless of where it will take us, we are riding the horse, out of the reach of either hope or fear. Then everything, no matter what it is, becomes part of the adventure. Knowing this is more than enough to inspire faith in our life, wherever it takes us.
This is the kind of knowing, the kind of adventure, that Mary Oliver, in her poem The Journey, reminds us of:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began.
When I first read Oliver’s poem, I had just landed in San Francisco from London. That one reading made my hair stand on end. It confirmed the rightness of all that had just happened in my life. A few months earlier, I had woken up one morning and knew I should leave my native country of England and go to live in America. Just like that. Rather than a decision, it was like recognizing something whose time had come. Everything needed to change, and the time was now. One day I finally knew. I sold my house, my library, and my love of 12 years and I finally parted. I read my diaries of 25 years, and then burned them. I got on a plane to California, and I have been here, in a new life, ever since.
Roger Housden’s new book, Keeping the Faith Without a Religion is available at here.