They say a waterfall is created when the softer under-rock erodes faster than the upper layer. As the soft rock is swept away, the hard rock is left unsupported. Eventually, it falls under its own weight combined with the weight of the water, and the waterfall moves upstream. Once the harder rock is all broken away, there won’t be a waterfall anymore. Just rapids at first, then a swift-flowing stream, then a gentle river.
I like to think the psyche is the same way. The hard layer of stone capping our lives is all the things we think we want, while the soft, underrock represents the emotions and values that make up who we really are. As we pursue the “right” things, the “important” friends, and the “appropriate” ambitions, we begin to find a disconnect between what we “ought” to do and our power to actually do it. Sometimes, we act like we can, by sheer willpower, make water flow upstream.
There’s a common story, among people who work with the dying, that people at the end of their lives wish they had spent more time picking daisies with their kids and less time in the office. I’ve also met people who had that kind of story told to them so many times that they didn’t realize they had the opposite problem. Hard as it is to believe, there are people so determined to create a family they didn’t even want that they missed out on pursuing the job that offered them real fulfillment. I guess that’s another way of saying that people are individuals and that their tastes and interests are going to vary.
Anyway, these are the kinds of internal conflicts that create the waterfall moments of plunging drama, wild chaos, and great excitement that typify the times we call “adolescence” and “the mid-life crisis.” I put these terms in quotation marks because I want to be sure we know what we mean when we say them.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary1 offers a few different definitions for adolescence, two of which I want to focus on in some detail.
1. the state or process of growing up
2. a stage of development prior to maturity
There’s a third definition that goes into the details of puberty and the concept of legal adulthood, but I’d like to set that one aside for now, because it isn’t really “adolescence” per se that concerns me here. The point isn’t one’s age; the point is how this conflict is perceived by one’s self and others.
The first definition, the “state or process of growing up,” refers to an ongoing development. One might well ask, “when is one grown up?” The second definition presupposes the answer – “maturity.” While neither of these answers is necessarily wrong, there is a certain risk in the second definition. What does it mean for someone to be told that he or she is immature? Is this said as a mere statement of fact, or as a judgement?
Do we fault the waterfall because it is not a river?
In geology, while we appreciate the beauty of both the mature and the young stream, it’s the waterfall that draws the most attention. Niagara Falls makes a big business out of allowing people to come stand and stare. In fact, we even have created ways for people to more efficiently stand and stare—they can take a boat or walk on bridges.
In social life, it’s the mature person who is culturally valued. We admire those who are serene, self-controlled, and full of purpose, and that’s good. These are things we should strive to achieve.
But maybe we’re missing the point. Waterfall moments don’t just happen to the young or those who realize they’re aging. They happen to everyone, but some of us are good at ignoring them. Those little warning signs of discontent or fear might start like little pinpricks, not even enough to keep one up at night, but they build quickly if left alone. The soft underground wears from under the stone layer, deeper and deeper, wider and wider, until what was a river becomes a rapid, then a waterfall.
We can avoid that, of course. It just requires one to acknowledge this rigid assertion of “right” thinking, “appropriate” choices, and “perfect” goals is genuinely different from the reality of who we are. That’s a much harder thing to do than it sounds. We put pressure on ourselves to perform, to be up to the level, to keep up appearances. Sometimes, we get away with it. Sometimes, the constant pretense becomes reality… but not without a great deal of effort.
Reconciling the two halves of one person requires as much negotiation and careful thought as reconciling two quarreling friends. Step one is admitting there’s a problem. Step two is figuring out what it is. Step three is deciding to keep figuring out what the problem is. Step four is finding a creative solution. Step five is admitting the fourth step wasn’t good enough. Step six is trying another creative solution. See the fifth step again. Somewhere along the way, one realizes the initial problem and its side-effects don’t exist anymore, and that may very well be followed by the realization that one is a very different person than he thought.
There’s an old, Buddhist story about this. On Buddha’s quest for Enlightenment, Mara, an evil spirit, opposed the Buddha, taunting him and making it difficult to focus. After years and years of this, the Buddha stopped fighting Mara. He never surrendered, but when he saw Mara approaching, he rose to greet his old nemesis as a friend and politely inquired after Mara’s health, offering him a cup of tea. In the end, Mara confessed that he’d been thinking about his desire to find another job and continued on his way in peace. Mara and Buddha were the same person.
To fix a problem, you’ve got to stay with the problem. Love the person who has the problem, be compassionate to you, treat you like a friend. Love is patient and kind, be patient and kind to yourself. Love always protects, always hopes, always perseveres and it never, ever fails. Remind yourself that it’s okay to be a waterfall right now, because no waterfall can ever last forever. With time, you will be a quiet stream again, if that’s what you truly want. The hardest person in the world to shower with patience is yourself, but psychological development is a long-term process. You wouldn’t rush geology.
1 Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Adolescence (Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 2015), http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/adolescence
Photo courtesy of Vincent Moschetti.