There is a long honored Zen story about a man riding a speeding horse. As horse and rider gallop dangerous close to a small group of travelers along the same road, a man nearly trampled calls out to the rider, “Where are you going in such a hurry?” The man on horseback desperately answers over his shoulder, “I don’t know! You will have to ask the horse!”
The state of affairs for that rider is exactly as it is for most of us. While in the saddle, we have no command over our direction or destination. “We are riding horses we cannot control,” Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hanh observed about this story.
But the truth of the matter is, there is little control to be had – over horses – over anything. It is a false notion to think that we can exert our will over our circumstances. Oh, one might manage things for a little while, “with a place for everything and everything in its place,” but places and things have a way of getting jostled.
The people you work with, or the people you work for, are going to be uncooperative. The systems you have put your confidence in – religious, social, political – will never act exactly as you wish. Your children, be they four or forty, won’t do what you tell them to do.
Your own body and emotions will rebel against you. The stock market, no matter how savvy your investment, will prove to have a mind of its own. On and on I could go: Every relationship, stage of life, challenge at work, decision, health diagnosis, or family crisis has the potential to become a bucking bronco, tossing you from the saddle.
Switching from land to sea – another tossing, turning, uncontrollable entity – it might be helpful to think of your world as a great ocean. Its ever-churning waves keep crashing against you and your vessel. If you are waiting for the waves to settle, thinking that will aid you in controlling life, you will die waiting. Sure, the sea will subside, falling as slick as glass from time to time, but the billows and winds will always return.
Thus, inner peace – call it acceptance, serenity, resilience, or some other synonym – is the stability achieved within, for only chaos reigns without. Inner peace is a sort of ballast, a centering weight that provides stability as one sails the sea. It keeps the ship afloat, balanced, riding the waves instead of being swamped by them.
Most everything you wish you could do something about is beyond your ability to do so. That’s okay. You can learn to live with it, go with it, and roll with the waves that are certain to come. For it is the wise man or woman who knows that control is an illusion; and it is the skilled sailor who understands that he or she cannot control the weather or the water. He or she can only learn to steady and sail the ship.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop
Each year the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind grants the Holman Prize, a $25,000 award given to a blind individual to adventurously explore the world. The inaugural recipient was Ahmet Ustunel, a Turkish national who has always refused the label of “handicapped” or “disabled.”
As a child he did the things all kids do: Rode a bicycle, walked to school, and went fishing with his father. It was those fishing trips that first drew him to the water, to kayaking, where he found a freedom he never knew elsewhere. He brought this love for the sea to the United States when he immigrated to become a teacher of the blind; and it was his love for the sea that earned him the Holman Prize.
The money was used to fund Ahmet’s kayak crossing of the Bosphorus Strait, and the creation of a navigational system that employed sounds, vibrations, and other non-optical communications to keep him safe. He needed it. The Bosphorus, the geographical boundary between Asia and Europe, is the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation, and is packed with seagoing vessels.
Some thought this venture a fool’s errand bordering on the suicidal, but Ahmet persisted, “with all the stubbornness of a goat.” He lashed his white, red-tipped, walking cane to the bow of his kayak, and off he went, successfully circumnavigating the waterway for its twenty terrifying miles. His success, however, was not primarily due to the technological or monetary assistance he received – though these were needed. By his account, it was an energizing hope.
Hope is an ethereal idea. As Saul of Tarsus wrote, speaking of the greatest spiritual principles, “These will remain: Faith, hope, and love.” Yet, all three defy easy explanation. And hope might be the most elusive of all, because it comes across so often as gullibility or naïveté.
“I hope to graduate in the spring,” one says, whether he or she has studied for finals or not. “I hope to retire at sixty,” a person might chirp, irrespective of how much financial planning has been done. “I hope that things get better,” another retorts, all while watching as a spectator, never getting involved in the actual betterment of “things.” It’s no wonder that hope is hard to grasp, given how it is used as a synonym for wishful thinking.
But let’s take a lesson from Ahmet Ustunel, or from anyone who understands what hope is. It is fuel. It is resiliency. It is a burning “fire in the bones” that moves a person forward, forward into the unknown, not into an idealized future, for the future is impossible to know. In face of this unknown, hope empowers, motivates, and pushes a person onward.
Certainty does not accompany hope, but persistence – “the stubbornness of a goat” – does. And while having hope doesn’t mean that life will turn out like we plan, it does mean we have the wherewithal to press on; and sometimes pressing on is what we need the most.
Photo by Soren Jorgensen
Many of you have received my “Keeping the Faith” via email or by reading in your local paper. Some of that will change in 2019. I will continue to produce content for my local Gatehouse Media papers and exclusively for Digital First Media (The Detroit News, et. al.).
My columns will be available here on my site and through social media as usual. Some smaller papers will no longer be able to carry the column, and email distribution will end.
All the best to you in the New Year, and Keep the Faith.