By Darius E. Bennett, Esq.
“What wants to happen?”
— Eileen McNamara
That wise query originated with the mother of a dear friend. It was proposed in the context of my friend –her daughter– insistently swimming during her younger years against the unyielding current of life. As with koi in Japanese culture, swimming upstream seems laudable and spirited, and can lead to a form of abundance. For koi, it leads to still waters, habitable environs for reproduction, a greater rate of survival for offspring, a richer supply of food for that offspring, and legendary status among humans. However, this countercurrent swim leads to suffering and death. Yes, it is true: once upstream, koi and most other fishes that swim against the current, at the end of their journeys first reproduce and then die. Real strength and abundance are found downstream, in the flow. Living in the flow builds muscle, increases vitality, and improves their endurance for that end-of-life journey. There is a lesson for humans in the koi’s journey. As Oprah counsels, “Don’t fight the current. Resist nothing. Let life carry you. Don’t try to carry it.”
What if we embraced the perspective that swimming in the flow of life is more dynamic and bounteous than laboring against its current?
In 1996 I moved to Santiago, Chile as a participant in Lake Forest College’s International Internship Program. Douglas Stuart, the program coordinator, was an expatriate and LFC alumnus with permanent resident status. Because of his extensive connections within the business community, Doug was able to secure an internship for each of us based on our career aspirations. For me, Doug found work at a boutique law firm located in Santiago’s burgeoning Providencia, an area then comprising upstart businesses, small law firms, and populated by Chilean-style yuppies, who worked elsewhere but could afford to live in this promising new area. My boss for the semester, don Manuel Vergara Echeverría, was an imperial figure, who exercised abiding patience, frequently surrendered to his pedagogical bent, and smiled instead of furrowing his brow, even if I was asking my fifteenth question of the past three hours. He singularly towers over all other mentors and bosses who have employed me since. I took all manner of questions to him, and even when he was surely very busy, he stopped to provide an answer. My assignment was in translation. He bought me a voluminous dictionary and assigned me a desk with beautiful views of the neighborhood.
Lunches were two hours long, not for naps rather so that one actually had time to eat or could perhaps have lunch with some member of their family. I wandered the city with my two hours, usually after having bought a quick lunch from a food cart along the avenue. Sometimes I mistook mayonnaise for melted cheese, and had to endure the condiment I still abhor more than any other, slathered generously on an otherwise delicious, affordable sandwich, prepared using bread baked fresh that morning. I explored bookstores, music, and sweets shops in an effort to build vocabulary through conversation, but also to buy books, music, and sweets! The clerks in these shops were curt and dismissive, often not bothering to look my direction while sending me away with my purchases. I assumed it was because I looked young for my age so they just wanted to be done with the garrulous high schooler. But eventually it really unnerved me. One day, while rinsing away the vestiges of mayonnaise with sixteen ounces of Bilz soft drink, I decided to stop in an office supplies store to buy pens. The clerk this day was especially unconcerned and might as well have tossed my bag of merchandise to the door for me to retrieve it on my way out. When I returned to the office, I seized the first opportunity I saw to take the matter up with don Manuel. He invited me into his office, asked me to please sit, and then inquired about my day and how I felt about my assigned work. You know: an actual conversation. It was rather defusing, and my frustration with the clerk from lunch lost its intensity by the end. Just before leaving his office, I remembered why I had originally gone to him. I explained my ordeal with the clerk from lunch and asked how he would suggest I tackle it. He could relate. He had experienced that same treatment, more than once. Don Manuel advised that, the next time it happened, and before I paid, I calmly and politely offer, “You know what? It appears that I have come into the store at a time that was inconvenient for you. I’m sorry for that. I will leave these things here and come back at a time that is hopefully better for you.” He explained that standing near that clerk, more often than not, was the supervisor and that if I left the merchandise behind it would reflect poorly on the clerk. This man was brilliant! He was a light! The following day, during my lunch, I had the same experience at a music store. I remembered don Manuel’s advice, and offered to leave and come back later instead of “troubling him by purchasing those three CD’s at a time that was inconvenient for him.” Not only did the clerk smile at me, but he treated me so well that I nearly felt guilty.
Instead of swimming upstream against his negative attitude, I had chosen instead to be carried by the flow and accept that perhaps that day was not our day to interact. Walking back to the office, I concluded that I never needed to buy that particular merchandise from that clerk, that I could buy them elsewhere and be happy. It would be another twenty years before I fully understood that, if I were wise, I would allow life to carry me and should stop resisting the current of things that are going to happen, whether I wanted them to or not.