The Lesson of the Canoe

Have you ever seen a person who has never been in a canoe before try to canoe? It looks like an exercise in frustration. He sits awkwardly on one of the seats and moves in a zigzag pattern…

Life is like canoeing a rough lake

in an unstable boat.

Have you ever seen a person who has never been in a canoe before try to canoe? It looks like an exercise in frustration. He sits awkwardly on one of the seats and gingerly paddles, first on the right, and then on the left. On a smooth lake, it may even seem to be a pleasant exercise though somewhat overdone. Now suppose such a person sets out bravely enjoying a glassy-smooth lake early one morning. The zigzag path doesn’t concern him as he stays close to shore or secure within a small bay.

Now let us suppose that a young teenager with a fast motor boat zooms by close to this intrepid but inexperienced canoeist. What happens next is not difficult to visualize. The canoe rocks and may even capsize. What does he do?

He may return to shore and vow never to canoe again. After all it is a highly unstable and unsafe craft. He may become angry (with the inconsiderate youth) and even arrange with authorities to ban early morning motor boating. Or he may, with stoic determination, get up earlier next morning to beat the traffic, so to speak, or simply right the boat and keep trying.

These options may seem reasonable at first. At least they stop the immediate problem. What if he takes the first option and never canoes again? There are other activities he can do, but he will lose out on a potentially pleasurable activity. The second option may work if he has the power, but what about forces of nature that won’t bow to the restrictions of even a cottage owner’s lobby? The third will eventually give in to the frustrations as other variables impinge on his travails anytime or in a variety of ways.

What about learning to canoe? If he takes this option, he will first learn that the canoe is an unstable craft. It in light and has no keel. So it sits on the surface of the water, a fundamental asset of canoeing. But this is its fundamental weakness also. So to offset this, he learns that the seat is not for sitting. It is to be used as a brace as he kneels deeply into the canoe. This way, the center of gravity is lowered and stabilizes the craft. Then he learns the J-stroke, a manoeuvre that automatically compensates for the sideward movement of the keel-less craft and points it straight ahead. Then he actually feels secure, not because he has succeeded in addressing the problem when it emerges, but because he has risen intellectually above the problem. He can actually captain the boat and it feels good. A motor boat comes by and it rocks the boat, but it feels good, in fact, exhilarating. He even dares the motorist to create a deeper wave so he can feel the excitement of riding it. He can go to the other side without fear of the weather because he knows he can weather the storm. He has conquered that challenge.

Isn’t it the same with life? We fight the stress, find ways to avoid it, or simply try harder and reach burnout or physical exhaustion and discouragement or mental exhaustion that may then be treated with a vast range of modifiers as a problem unto itself, not one caused by simple mismanagement.

I once was that person in a canoe. But I chose the fourth option and now enjoy canoeing tremendously. I once was that person in life. But I chose the fourth option and now enjoy my challenges with passion. I invite you to come with me on the same journey.

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