This post is a part of my Personal Development Project for May 2016.
Usually when I finish a good or truly awesome book, I’m immediately gripped by the need to write about it. I have to spend a couple hours just pouring out my thoughts and feelings in an Evernote document before I’m able to feel any sort of peace. And actually, it’s not uncommon for me to have to go through this process multiple times before I even finish the book. It doesn’t matter whether the book was a treatise on economics or religion, or was a Shakespearean play or a YA novel. I always have something to say or note or think about afterward.
But most unusually, when I finished Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, I didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t have anything that I actively wanted to write about. I felt the weight of the work and was consumed in simply remembering it for days on end, but I didn’t actually feel that prickling need to write about it or record my thoughts. It was bizarre. But I just trusted myself and went with it, assuming I would never write anything about Steppenwolf and how much it affected me (I wanted to say “how it changed my life”, but that’s a bit too dramatic).
While on a walk the other day though, I realized there is indeed something I really want to say. And the novel Steppenwolf is largely responsible for the insight that I had:
We can’t alter or control the world as much as we would like to.
It’s just not possible. And it’s okay. Good, even. If we were all-powerful, if we had the insight or ability to make everything “just work right”, then we’d miss out on a lot of beautiful things in life. We’d miss out on community and camaraderie and love. These things require trust, vulnerability, and a lack of control.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
-Do not go gentle into that good night, Dylan Thomas (excerpt)
This poem was like the mantra of my life up until a month ago. I’m a fighter, a warrior. I have fire in my blood, a hot desire to claw my way over every obstacle that presents itself. I don’t give up. I can’t. It goes against my nature.
But in the shadow of (what is agreeably) this strength of mine, Self-Reliance sits waving his pitiful flag, gripped with the loneliness of bitter solitude.
We often think of self-reliance as a good quality, but he can be a devilish fiend if he links arms with Undeterrable Persistence. I know firsthand the havoc that those two can reek on one’s life. Persistence tells you to keep working, keep running, keep fighting, and then Self-Reliance forbids you any rest or help or solace. Trust me, those two will kill you if given the chance. You can never let them team up.
Water benefits all the material beings very well, and doesn't contend.
It stays at the place which many people think is bad.
Therefore, it is close to the Tao.
-Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
I read this except from the Tao Te Ching many years ago, but it went over my head back then. Thankfully, I came across it again shortly after I finished Steppenwolf. Like the last time, I brushed it off at first. “Be like water?” I thought, “That’s ridiculous. I want to be like the mountain! I want to stand tall and firm. I want to be unshakable, unbreakable, unconquerable! Why would anybody want to be like water? That’s stupid.”
But there’s something really profound here, something True, something that can shatter the bond between Undeterrable Persistence and Self-Reliance.
Water isn’t breakable or conquerable. It’s free. And it’s both calm and calming. Being like water doesn’t mean betraying my essence, but enhancing it or refining it. This “be like water” mindset is one that I need to adopt if I want to really be comfortable with my failures. I need this mindset if I want to rein in Persistence and Self-Reliance (so they can be tools and not slave drivers).
In world where I have terrifyingly very little control, I have to be like water if I have any hope of finding peace. I can’t expect or demand that things happen exactly how I want them. It’s just not possible. But what is possible is freely moving with the current.
There’s a time for war just as there’s a time for peace.
The problem is that when I look at myself, I realize I have a tendency (err, more like a habit) to sharpen the battle ax and let out my best call to war. Like I said, I’m a fighter. And having this insight that I need to be more flexible and accepting of the lot that I’m handed doesn’t mean that I’m saying each and every person should become a passive robot. Being like water isn’t about passivity, but intentional and active acceptance. And active acceptance has an important place in the world just like sharp-toothed fighting does.
-Mozart from the novel Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
I think that the novel Steppenwolf contained a lot of half-truths, but this theme of laughter in the work was especially powerful for me. Regardless of the color that Hesse intended this theme to be, I’ve taken it, run with it, and given it special meaning in my life. When things don’t go as we want them, there’s no use sulking about it. Instead, we should be like water. We should accept the misfortunes, smile at the surprises of life, and keep on keeping on.
-Harry Haller in the novel Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
Like I said earlier: there’s a time for war and there’s a time for peace. There’s a time to be like the mountain just as there’s a time to be like water. The important thing is realizing that we’re not all powerful. We actually have very little control over the world around us. We’re much smaller than we feel, often times. And that’s actually a really cool thing.
This self-knowledge of how small we really are is what opens up the door for meaningful community. This humility is what allows for vulnerability and true friendship. It’s part of what makes us human. It’s really hard to accept that we don’t have all the answers or that we can’t do everything by ourselves, but it’s also really beautiful and really rewarding.
And it all starts with being like water.