Onward, Upward, and Backward
For a 10-year-old, camping and fishing in the wilderness of Florida’s Withlacoochee River was a true Huckleberry Finn adventure. Trips to those unspoiled backwoods with my grandfather are among the best memories I have of experiencing the freedom of untethered childhood. But the childhood freedom I found in those woods and on that river came with one particular moment of apprehension that spurred a maturing, as well as a valuable lesson for adulthood.
This lesson came the day my grandfather took me to his favorite fishing hole – an angler’s Shangri-La, far up the Withlacoochee River where there was no boat traffic and no sign of civilization. Because we were catching so many fish that day, we tried to ignore the familiar rumble of an approaching afternoon thunderstorm. Unwillingly, we reeled in our last fish and cranked up the engine with just enough time to make it back to camp. What we didn’t realize, though, was that our boat had drifted into a large patch of extremely thick weeds. The propeller was instantly entangled in the mess. As our boat became paralyzed, the approaching towers of black clouds and their cracks of brilliant lightning got closer. I became petrified with fear. But not my grandfather. In the face of what I saw as impending doom, he very calmly, carefully, and without drama, worked with the engine to get us unstuck. Just a little thrust forward… then another in reverse to clear off the weeds… then another forward… then another reverse… forward… reverse… Watching this painstaking procedure as the sky darkened over our heads was driving me crazy. In my fear, I wanted him to bury the throttle wide-open and just blast us free of the monstrous weed patch. Had he done that, though, the propeller would have locked up in the weeds, and the engine would have destroyed itself… stranding us for sure. But after a few minutes of his delicate tactic, we were clear. And we successfully raced the storm back to camp.
What this river adventure experience taught me was that getting stuck in life is never a problem, because there is always a way forward. The way forward, however, sometimes requires us to go backward. As counterintuitive as this sounds, embracing that kind of flexibility saves us the exhaustion and ineffectiveness of constantly trying to strongarm our life circumstances. Long-term solutions are incrementally found in the short-term… one moment at a time. My grandfather wasn’t thinking about getting the boat safely back to camp; he was thinking about getting it to move another 3 feet… and then another 3 feet… and another 3 feet after that. Each time he shifted the engine into reverse, it wasn’t a defeat… it was getting us closer to home.
In that same spirit, we would all do well to ask ourselves in times of trial, “What’s my next 3 feet?” … and then just act on that. Those 3 feet may be as simple as fixing dinner, sweeping the floor, or taking out the garbage. The point here is that life is lived, solved, and experienced in increments. As much as we want to have solutions NOW and outcomes NOW and answers NOW, we can’t. Life isn’t designed that way. We mustn’t fall into the trap of, “If I can just solve this problem, finish this project, accomplish this goal… THEN, I can be at peace.” That day will never come, because there will always be another problem to solve and another goal to achieve. Life’s river is meant to be a journey, and that journey has unavoidable twists and turns that give the impression of taking us backward. But a crooked river still ultimately flows in one direction; and its convoluted path doesn’t make the river faulty or flawed… it makes it interesting.
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