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Opinion Column
For the week of Apr. 19 through Apr. 25, 2000

The dilemma of not knowing what’s good for us


I try, I try, but sometimes my emotions get the better of my intellectual grasp of an issue. I get all tied up in stepping over one small rock beneath the current and forget that I do.

I have just been through a period of what I jokingly refer to as the Chinese water torture, a long period of uncertainly.

As with most of my life experiences, I am now looking at what it was about the three months that disturbed me most, and I am trying to put it in perspective. I do not need to go into the details at all, and in fact, feel it would be injudicious to do so, but let’s just say that I was awaiting the results of something I had tried seriously to attain.

It doesn’t even matter what the outcome was. As in sports competition, it is more important to play the game well than to win.

I truly believe that, and yet at times I found myself carping about the slowness of the process. There were many days when I just wanted to get the news, even if it was bad; I just wanted the uncertainty to be over.

I told myself that others were at fault, that the process itself needed revamping, that it wasn’t fair to ask people to wait so long to know the results. However, I also countered those negatives with some wisdom acquired over my years of living.

One is the knowledge that this was a process over which I had no control: thus, it was a waste of energy to try to speed it up. I did my best to present my case, and I just had to wait for others’ decisions regarding my abilities.

"Zorba the Greek," by Nikos Kazantzakis, has a moving passage where the narrator, a naive young Englishman who encounters the vital force of life embodied in Zorba, has an epiphany.

He recalls a time when, as a young boy, he discovers a cocoon in the bark of a tree just as the butterfly is preparing to emerge. In his youthful excitement, the young boy breathes on it to warm it and speed up the process.

Instead of helping the new form develop properly, however, the boy is dismayed to discover that he has crippled it. The butterfly appears crumpled, before its proper time.

The narrator then says, "That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm."

I know that Kazantzakis is speaking of the great patterns of life and eternity, but I can apply that lesson to such a time as I have just experienced.

It has been a lesson (put out there for me many times in my life) in patience. I am also aware that I can easily forget the wisdom I may have acquired when I focus on the immediacy of a situation and forget my long-range goals.

Because of my impatience, a friend once gave me a book called "Don’t Push the River." I try, I try, but sometimes my emotions get the better of my intellectual grasp of an issue. I get all tied up in stepping over one small rock beneath the current and forget that I do know how to swim.

The other reality I try to remember when faced with the conflict of a desire I may have with the reality of achieving it is that a grander perspective illuminates a vital truth. We don’t always know what’s good for us or recognize it at the time.

We all know that things have happened to us that at the time seemed losses or negative outcomes only to look back later and understand that the result was the correct one, that we indeed profited in many ways from not reaping that particular reward or achieving that victory.

I have learned that whatever the outcome, nothing is irreparably bad, and that often we grow in wonderful ways by setbacks.

All this sounds very Pollyana-ish, I know. Of course I want the prize, of course I don’t want to be disappointed, of course I’d rather have the issue settled right this minute. Of course I want what I want now. But the world isn’t necessarily going to rearrange its timetable for my convenience. Rivers aren’t going to slow down.

While I’m playing with the water metaphor, let me confess to something. I tried to find out the origin of the "Chinese water torture," since I have been bandying it about. In my imagination it has to do with the slow and constant dripping of water somehow driving a prisoner mad.

When I think of it, though, I don’t know how that could cause insanity. I’d like to at least toss out the term with an accurate reference in mind. So, if you know, please write.

I can wait.


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