Monday, January 10, 2011

The Three Choices of Life

Life is like a river of natural events -- it flows where it wants to flow, and there's not much you can usually do about it without an enormous amount of effort and a slew of unintended consequences. Basically, you have 3 choices in The Flow of Life -- go with The Flow, ignore The Flow, or change The Flow.

William Shakespeare was a very prolific writer who was mostly understood by snooty British intellectuals, high school English teachers and people with brain damage. Most of the rest of us who were forced to read his drivel back in high school didn’t have a clue what Shakespeare was all about.

One of his more famous excerpts comes in act 3 of Hamlet – “To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; or to take arms against a sea of troubles…”

This is all a person really needs to know about life. Unfortunately, reading Shakespeare is a lot like reading the graffiti on the wall of a public restroom – it seems somewhat clever yet is often confusing, but you don’t really care because you’ve got better things to do than hang around and try to figure it out.

What Shakespeare was really trying to tell the world was that there is a choice in life we all face. We can choose to go with The Flow and suffer the consequences (suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune) or we can choose to go off in our own direction (take arms against a sea of trouble) and suffer the consequences. Choosing not to make a choice automatically puts you into the category of going with The Flow. In other words, you can go with The Flow or follow your own path. Either way, there will be consequences to suffer.

Some people choose to go with The Flow. They elect people to lead them, obey the rules, pay their taxes and march off to war. They may not like it sometimes but they go along in order to get along. These are the followers of the flock of humanity and conformists who are obedient of authority, usually out of a sense of duty or fear of consequences.

Some people go off in their own direction, avoiding The Flow as much as humanly possible. Although often ridiculed by those who conform, they couldn't care less. And even when they’re alone they’re never lonely because they don’t need to be validated by others. These are the weirdoes who prefer to be different simply to gain self-respect within their own existence.

Then there are those who try to have it both ways, going with The Flow when it suits them and avoiding it when it doesn't. Most of the time they choose to go with The Flow, until The Flow takes them where they don’t want to be, then they rebel a bit. But taking arms against a sea of trouble requires strength and fortitude, forcing them to get back into The Flow when the going gets too tough. These are the flip-floppers who jump on and off of band wagons depending on which way the wind blows.

Furthermore, some people attempt to manipulate The Flow toward their personal desires. They demand the right to create and enforce their own version of heaven on Earth. Many of them believe they are creating a better world, while others are simply attempting to gain power, control or riches. Either way, it is a form of selfishness. No one has the moral certitude to change the world into their personal vision of wonderfulness, because wonderfulness is always in the eye of the beholder.

People who choose to always go with The Flow are happy people. Occasionally, they suffer the consequences of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but life is full of consequences and they don’t blame themselves for their suffering because they were merely caught in The Flow of the decision-making of others. Plus, the burden of making independent decisions is avoided because The Flow makes all the decisions for them.

People who choose to always avoid The Flow are also happy people. They go their own direction and follow their own path. They face lots of obstacles for not conforming to The Flow, but their suffering is of their own making and therefore more palatable. Independent people understand that suffering builds character, thereby making their way of life that much more endearing. Rather than allow the rest of the world to err on their behalf, they’d prefer to screw up their lives on their own.

Those who try to have it both ways are unhappy people. They have no direction in life. Rather than being comfortable within The Flow or comfortable outside The Flow, they are dissatisfied with both options and spend their days whining about how The Flow has ruined their lives.

People who try to change The Flow are also an unhappy lot. They tend to align with others who also want to change The Flow, exerting group pressure by forming associations and unions and political parties and religions and secret societies in order to manipulate The Flow in their favor. But no matter how effective they are at manipulating The Flow, they’re fighting an endless battle because there are always other interests attempting to manipulate The Flow in a variety of directions. And the ends rarely justify the means because there is no End to The Flow.

Flow Changers have been battling Flow Changers since the beginning of time. They are convinced their way is the correct way and insist everyone else conform to their notion of correctness, right down to the correct length of grass in your front yard and the correct state of mind from which you are forbidden to alter. Flow Changers are self-righteous, rebellious conformists who demand selfless, non-rebellious conformity from everyone else.

So if you want to be happy, accept the slings and arrows (go with The Flow) and fall in line like a proper obedient citizen (conformist). Or take arms against a sea of trouble (avoid The Flow) and follow your own path like a free independent thinker (outcast). One or the other -- you can't be both.

The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. The reward for conformity is everyone likes you but yourself. Even dead fish go with The Flow. The reward for being an outcast is self-respect. It's better to avoid The Flow than to be swept away by it.

If you want to be an unhappy jerk, attempt to change The Flow and regulate the world. But always bear in mind that no good deed goes unpunished.

"You must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A Wizard's power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow." Ursula K. Le Guin

There are only two things in life -- you and everything else. The only thing you can change is you.

Ultimately, you have 3 choices -- go with The Flow, ignore The Flow, or bang your head against the wall.

Quote for the Day -- “No two ideals were ever more incompatible than the security of conformity and the freedom of individuality. After the choice is made, the rest is easy – unless you don’t have the guts to stick by your choice.” Hunter S. Thompson

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and where changing The Flow often has something to do with indoor plumbing. His blogs appear on several websites, including

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