Life feels chaotic and unpredictable.
The path that you thought would carry you forward shifts with every step.
Fortunately, there are simple answers that can help you navigate the surprises ahead successfully.
In uncertain times, it helps to turn back to the timeless truths in nature.
My Summer Navigating the Rapids
I crouched next to my daughter as she played in the gravel along the riverbank. Slowly she snaked a stick back and forth, digging narrow trenches that quickly filled with water.
We were silent for a long time before I observed, “I think there are lots of life lessons on the river.”
Looking up quickly, she countered, “I don’t think so. I know so.”
It was the summer after my husband died. The kids and I were emotionally raw, but when a friend invited the kids and I to go river rafting, I didn’t hesitate. I have always loved rafting. Don was the one who navigated and rowed, so I was nervous about venturing onto the river alone. I was grateful to tag along in their boat.
I didn’t realize until I arrived that they had brought small individual watercraft: we would each be our own captain.
Fortunately, our friend was a good teacher. We learned skills not only for staying safe in the water, but for navigating the rapids of our personal lives. Three of the most important: paddle into the rapids, watch for landmarks, and go with the flow.
Why You Need to Paddle into the Rapids
New rafters often pull their paddles out of the water when they hit a stretch of rapids. Maybe it seems like the boat is already traveling fast enough. Or maybe it’s just instinct to pull back slightly when things feel chaotic or out-of-control.
Either way, it’s the wrong approach.
To make it through successfully, you need to keep your paddle in the water. It’s easy to be pushed off course quickly in whitewater. If your paddle is back in the boat, you lose the precious seconds of response time that may make the difference in staying upright or capsizing.
The same is true in navigating choppy waters in other areas of life.
In hard times it’s easy to stop doing those things that help us stay centered and make personal progress: things like exercising, eating well, and making time for spiritual practice may disappear when life seems to be moving too quickly or things feel out of control. But those are the times when it is easiest to get pulled off track. Consistent “paddling” is much more important than it would be along the calm stretches.
Paddling means showing up in the little ways that end up making a big difference over time. It means sticking to habits that keep you stable when things around you aren’t.
Notice your routine: things like getting up and dressed, even if you aren’t able to go out, make a difference in how you feel. If you have extra time on your hands, plan uplifting ways to use it: keep up with or begin a spiritual practice, exercise, do something creative, check in on loved ones, even if you have to do it virtually. Look for something you can do to be of service and show kindness each day, in person or long distance. Find something to nurture, even something as simple as a potted plant.
It’s easy to tell yourself that the little things don’t matter when you are navigating a crisis. The truth is, they become far more important.
What does paddling look like in your life?
Do you have your oars in the water?
Why You Need to Watch for Landmarks
The path looks different from the middle of the river than from the bank. It’s possible to overshoot your destination or to get lost completely.
The best way to avoid that is to know the landmarks all along the journey and watch for them carefully.
In life the most important landmarks are those that mark the way to where you want to end up as a human being. What are the values that will guide you home?
In the middle of corona virus restrictions and grocery store shortages it could be easy get carried away in panic. I didn’t want that, because my landmark values include compassion, kindness, and integrity.
So, when a friend complained about not being able to find rice to purchase, I filled a bag for him from my pantry. And when I happened to wander into the grocery store right behind the toilet paper supply truck, I only purchased one package.
Small, seemingly insignificant choices are usually the ones that determine our destination. Losing sight of them in times of turmoil will take you off track.
What are your landmark values? How are you watching for them in the rapids?
Why You Need to Go with the Flow
When I was an anxious, overachieving graduate student, one of my teachers used to remind me, “Don’t push the river: it flows by itself.”
I never knew what that metaphor was supposed to mean.
Learning to navigate a river gave me a new perspective. As a rafter, it isn’t possible to change the pattern of waterflow or to move sandbanks, rocks, trees, or other obstacles. Instead, the goal to read the pattern of waterflow and to work with it.
You can’t force your own idea of where to paddle or how to move though the river. Instead you need to pay close attention to existing conditions and adapt.
You guide your boat into areas with the best depth of water and plan your path around the inevitable obstacles. And even although obstacles can turn deadly, they aren’t necessarily seen as a bad thing: they are just variables to consider.
For example, rocks could strand or even damage your boat. But they also help create the excitement that whitewater rafters seek. And they can even provide needed breaks. Behind them there is often an area called an eddy where the flow of water reverses. It’s possible to rest there if needed before tackling the next round of rapids.
This is also a useful approach to the rest of life.
Many of us waste time and energy wishing circumstances were different than they actually are. We try to force one agenda instead of carefully analyzing our circumstances and planning the safest, most enjoyable path through them.
Life, like a river, is constantly moving and changing. Traveling it can be a beautiful, exciting journey.
Where is the river taking you today?
Are you fighting unwinnable battles against rocks or sandbars?
How are you navigating to mitigate dangers and increase enjoyment?
Finding Beauty and Hope
You are an adventurer on a grand journey.
There will be moments of confusion and fear, but they don’t have to define your travel.
The truth is, you will only see your voyage in full perspective after the fact. What will define what that journey means to you later are the small everyday choices you make right now—especially the ones that happen when you feel overwhelmed, confused, or afraid.
Choose to show up with integrity and kindness. Make little the little everyday choices that help you move forward, and make them according to your values. Don’t waste time complaining about the discover of the way—focus on navigating the terrain in front of you.
As you do you will discover beauty. And hope.