The Kenwood Press
: 04/15/2015

Stones in the Stream

Jim Shere

There is an idea that life will occasionally bring us to a crossroad, where we have to stop and consider which way to go. We look as far as we can see down one path, to where it turns a corner, and up another, to where it rises and disappears over the crest of a hill, and we imagine what must lie ahead, each way, considering all the possibilities. Eventually, we make our choice.

My fantasy is that – once a road is chosen and followed a bit – if we glance back to where we had paused, we will see that there was in fact no crossroad there after all, only a spot where we had stopped for a while to think; and the road not taken turns out never to have existed at all, except in the mind.

Robert Frost once wrote a poem about this, wondering what would have happened had he taken the other road. The road he had followed instead may well have been Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, which leads eastward across Marin County – for, as famous as he was, not many remember that Frost was born and raised here. How different would American Literature be, had he not left California for New England? The question is now moot, because it simply didn’t turn out that way – but it is still compelling.

The human condition seems frequently fraught with such choices: which one will be proven right, and which one will be proven wrong? We can’t know, because the only comparison we have is the unfair one that compares what happened with the fantasy of what might have happened instead – the real with the ideal – and regrets over bad choices make poor criteria for critical reviews.

Studies have recently shown that there is a human tendency toward negative bias when reviewing the past, hindsight being more accurate than judgments on the fly. Expect the worst, we learn, and be pleasantly surprised; but we typically do not savor that pleasant surprise – we often remain suspicious, and continue to expect the worst as we move on. It would be helpful to stop and smell the roses along the way, and leaven our doubts with gratitude.

Then, an appreciative and resilient mind can contemplate the full potential of an ambiguous situation, without reducing it to fundamental choices. An analytic discussion of the half-full and half-empty glass only confuses the measure of the thing with the thing being measured, so that quantity becomes more important than quality. The important and useful, simple fact is that both are true – and that there is water in the glass.

It is easy to forget that the Tree of Knowledge, which grew at the origin of our western values, emphasized a dynamic relationship of good and evil – and the sin of thinking they are mutually exclusive, which they are not. The crossroad is better understood as an intersection, where roads come together rather than part – and where possibilities for the future do not compete with one another, but instead excite the exploration and discovery of new possibilities, here and now.

This takes awareness, and responsibility. I’ve learned to hear the music of the stream that runs past my cabin as it flows across the stones placed in its bed – the treble notes as it ripples along the shallows, and the tumbling bass tones of the rapids farther down. And I’ve come to see how our choices are like stones that we place – thoughtfully or not – in the flow of our lives, each having its place in the song. Listening closely, as we place these stones, helps us to know what to do, and when.

In the constant flow that is the cosmos, where universes continually blaze forth and are then drawn into black holes to blaze forward once again somewhere else, one thing is not pitted against another. They are nested within one another, embracing one another, as though in a perpetually dynamic Klein Bottle, undulating like the Serpent in the Garden that, as seen in many traditions, bites its own tail.

We may once have thought that we had passed through an infinite number of crossroads, with rueful regrets, or without notice. More likely, it may turn out there never really was a road to follow after all, just a trackless field of infinite possibilities that still lie ahead of us, and the one meandering, flowing path that we have created and left behind, as we placed stones – perhaps thoughtfully, perhaps not – as we went. That choice remains ours, as we go on.