A while back I read a piece about the differences in the way Eastern cultures and Western cultures view life. It boils down like this. Eastern cultures tend to accept the ebb and flow – the natural process of destruction, cleansing and rebirth that often happens several times throughout the course of one’s life. Conversely, Western cultures (in this case, the US being the comparison) tend to see life as a linear process of sustained upward development. One in which we (those experiencing life) exert control over our position and outcomes. The first view is naturalistic or even perhaps fatalistic. The other, while vastly more egocentric, holds within it the promise of self-made progress, or Manifest Destiny. Also sometimes known as CONTROL. I suspect religion has a large influence here, but I won’t even go there.
It seems to me that we Western sorts have a rather dismal record of dealing with uncertainty. We have been conditioned to stand in judgement of ourselves (and others) when faced with setbacks or restarts. What I find perplexing is how we don’t see the silliness of it all. How we have been sold a bill of goods that keeps us weighed down rather than that life-affirming chance at a big flush of the toilet. We have been trained to think up is the only way and down is a dirty secret. Rather than seeing setbacks or natural cycles as grand opportunities for cleansing and renewal, instead we let our internal jury convict with little to no evidence – leading to shame, depression and despair. Then, when we are unable to live in the constant upside, we seek solace in our consumption – whether alcohol, IKEA, drugs, sex or the Kardashians, the numbing ensues and the Technicolor of life in either direction grows dim. For there is no true joy without true sorrow and by buffering one we also buffer the other.
What we are left with is a watered down and backed up mess.
But, nature has in her toolbox an infinite number of devices for resetting the stage. She uses them all constantly. From the extreme such as earthquakes, hurricanes and forest fires, to the twice daily rise and fall of the ocean tides. Today, I had the opportunity (or perhaps they had the misfortune) of explaining the concept of high and low tide to my small children. Remember these are seriously land-locked offspring, so this is not a concept with which they are intimately familiar. My explanation would have probably made my sixth grade science teacher wonder why she wasted her time, but to illustrate my Neanderthal explanation, we visited the same beach in British Columbia twice in one day.
Once in the morning during low tide.
And again in the afternoon during high tide.
The tide went out leaving colonies of mussels exposed, huge driftwood timbers tossed about like tidily winks and the floor of the sea to air dry. Only hours later, it came rushing back in all its power and filled it all in again. Rinse and repeat. Twice daily. This experience and my infantile attempt to explain the magnificence of the natural world reminded me once again of the notable difference between the Eastern and Western way of thinking.
My take is that nature is a bad ass bitch that creates and destroys on cue. It seems only reasonable that the human experience should be the same. There are forces at work so vastly out of our control, yet our control-obsessed culture teaches us nothing of surrender. It seems this tool doesn’t fit neatly into the contemporary American toolbox.
So why can’t we just let go and ride the tide?
Being from Texas, I am all for making my own way in this life. Hell this is me down to the molecular level. I bet if you were to view my blood under a microscope, it might look something like Wiley Coyote whistling Dixie. Obviously I am no scientist and anyway, perhaps this is too personal, but I have found an ounce of peace in the surrender. Now, hey there, don’t go crazy and think I won’t fight when a fight is called for, but I no longer try to fight the natural course of things. For inevitably, the tide will go out and the tide will come in twice daily – ebb and flow. As it is in nature, it is in human life.
Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on lifeonespoonfulatatime.com in August 2013.