On Hardship, Opportunity, Transformation, and Fear - Part 3

This series of pieces was originally published on my Linkedin in October of 2015. Although completion of it became a casualty of my circumstances and priorities for a long time, I’m delighted to announce that publications will pick up again (beginning with the final part of this series) in Fall 2019.


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This is the third post in a series on anticipating, responding to, and experiencing personal change. You can click here to read Part 1"Change starts with your perspective about learning and learning experiences", and you can click here for Part 2, "Complete transformation requires the ability to regain and retain a childlike open mind". 

Today's picture is of bronze being poured into casting molds, because we are shaped by what's around us as much as we shape ourselves. Arguably more, I don't know, depends on how you look at it, and they're equally important, but we'll get to that.

Much love to the Wikimedia Commons for all the reusable and shareable images I've borrowed over the years. They're always great to turn to when I don't know what I want, and need to cruise around different concepts to map the idea in my thoughts and get my visual imagination going. Or, like, times when I said I'd post something yesterday and I ran behind and screw taking forever to obsess over finding a picture. Legit though, if you haven't kicked down a couple of bucks to Wikipedia lately, I highly recommend it. Feels good, man.



This is a lot like Part 2, but subtly different, though they are inextricable from each other. Part 2 is about your fundamental perceptions of the world, how you perceive that things will work, and the need to be flexible about adjusting those expectations. This part is about how you respond to the state of change around you, and freeing yourself of the need to pretend you have control over most things.

Bear with me, while 22-year-old me joins the conversation, and we move on to studying Taoist stories and punk rock lyrics in our ongoing quest for constructive change.


3. Transformation can't be forced to go your way; it will inherently go a new and different way from anything you try to cause.

Think about it; you can't transform according to a plan conceived by the old you, because it will inherently have the limitations of the old you. This is sort of like thought exercises about imagining something truly original or impossible, something not made up of elements of real things you've heard of. After a point, we are really like computers (rather, they're like us) -- we only have what's innately programmed into us and the information we're exposed to, and whatever means by which we organized that information. We break these limitations a little bit all the time, with every new second of input daily, because we have the ability to add more hardware to ourselves all the time, which is absolutely ridiculously insanely cool. But in order to change one's own limitations and processes on an organizational/functional/applied level, it requires the addition of an external stimulus that fundamentally changes one in some way.

David Hume (I'm a sucker for empiricists) really defined the modern notion of causality, in one of those 1700s-era conversations that prove why younger STEM types shouldn't make quite so much damned fun of philosophy majors. Or at least those of us who started the major, got the juice out of it, then ditched it. I recommend that. Anyway, he really got at the meat of what cause and effect is, and the rational relationship between the two, and basically defined the properties of processes-having-predictable-qualities. (I almost was lazy and made reference to Newton's Law, but then I actually double-checked my understanding of it, and it's much more about the logical necessity of equal force being exerted on two objects when they directly interact -- not so much about cause-effect.) Anyway, the third item on Hume's list of eight criteria for identifying a cause-effect relationship is:

"There must be a constant union betwixt the cause and effect. 'Tis chiefly this quality, that constitutes the relation."

Now, you could say this is a little abstract to be looked at as scientific law. I should probably post all the laws, but then this would be even longer and about David Hume. Someday.

It's poetic, but it's sensible. The two are inextricable from each other. It's reflected in natural law all over the place, and comes right down to the same logical fractal root as does the principle that matter cannot be created from nothingness.

"Okay", my older and less mature self of recent times would kvetch at this point if I were bantering this in a comment thread with someone. "I get it, I can't be every variable that causes my own change. But what's with the title's implication that I can't control it and cause my own variables? What's the application of this in response to real life?"

You can, to some extent, control the variables that influence your life. Mainly, you have the potential to experience virtually any variable at all. You get handed a round of random variables to start with like arbitrarily distributed character points, and then as you grow you can kinda sorta cut some of the infinite variables off from impacting your life. But that's what life is -- a source of infinite stimuli, limitless options, and you have to go about unchecking some of the boxes you were handed at first and maybe some you were handed along the way. For the most part, every possibility comes pre-checked. Keeping some un-checked is pretty hard.

As far as applying this to what's actually happening to you, well, I'd have to know what's happening to you, and maybe I'd know about it or maybe I wouldn't. But there's some very good perspective in an old Taoist story that can help you apply it, if you can dig into metaphors and applying poetry and parables to your life. (Honestly, if you're reading or going to read any bit of my writing, I really hope you can handle loads of metaphors.)

This telling of it is copypasta'd all over the internet and I can't confirm an original translator/source for the life of me. I'm not great at that. Sorry. Anyway, I learned it in The Tao of Pooh, and it goes a little somethin' like this:

A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. "I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived."

(The story I remember was one of the versions wherein the man implies or states that he's done this before with the waterfall, many times, ever since he was a little boy. There are several variations, as I understand it, and sometimes it's told as Kungfutse directly interacting with the man.)

Life is not a sport like ice skating, where you slice a shape through surrounding material. Life is more like surfing, or mountain biking, where you choose your line as fast as you can see the information flying at you and you make infinite split-second decisions about tiny adjustments so that you bounce off of everything properly and don't fall and die. Like riding a wave, or riding a line, you have to relax and be flexible and responsive to ride the waterfall.

The meaning of this is illustrated in a more concrete way in another Taoist tale, which explains better than I can how riding the waterfall applies to life's frustrating and tragic turns. This one, I'll just retell myself the way I've been paraphrasing it for years.

A man and his son had a farm.

One day, their horses escaped their fence. "How terrible!", the neighbors said. "You don't know that", said the farmer.

The next day, their horses returned and brought with them some wild ones. "How wonderful!", the neighbors said. "You don't know that", said the farmer.

One day soon after, the farmer's son was breaking one of the wild horses, and it threw him, breaking his leg. "How terrible!", the neighbors said. "You don't know that", said the farmer.

One day soon after that, the military came to the village to take young men with them into the draft. The boy could not go because he had broken his leg.

Anything, anything can become an advantage or good thing in due time. This basically amounts to saying "One day, when you're older, you'll see it differently", but that's true, and it applies to anyone at any age.

The nature of transformation is such that it generally won't present in the ways it's expected to. The unknown is an inherent element. And that's uncomfortable, and nobody really likes dealing with it. But embracing it is necessary if one is to maximize one's growth potential; in order to survive the waterfall, let alone observe its beauty on the way, you have to be willing to relax and be shaped by it. This means being willing to disrupt your mental methods of processing and organizing information, when nudged to new perspectives and ideas. This means being willing to experience new stimuli when presented with them.

By all means, I take this sensibility to the extreme, and am very much the nihilist naturalist "There's no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an end/When we all disintegrate, it'll all happen again" kind of thinker. (Bad Religion lyrics, by the way, from the song "No Control".) It goes back further than my punk rock days, though. It probably goes back to when I learned about Baroque art, how it explored the contrast between beauty and morbidity, and how the oratorios of the time explored the contrast between the joyous and the melancholy and the irony of mismatching themes to the musical aesthetic. I think the ultimate pointlessness of everything (or transience of this world, if you want to look at it in a more spiritual and less coal-lump way) is beautiful and liberating. Lots of people probably don't, but I think it's awesome that the ultimate transience and ephemerality of everything means that you have unlimited options.

You are molded by your experiences, and they are highly influential, but it is your properties that cause you to melt or harden the way you do, just like the bronze. The bronze and the mold (or metalworker, whatever) are inextricably involved with each other, and the final product is shaped by both. And the mold's furrows and curves and features are infinitely variable. The more flexible you are, and the longer you take to get all sludgy and hard, the easier it will be to ride the waterfall. I know I'm stacking metaphors here but just roll with it.

The world has infinite possible kinks in the mold to throw your way, just as there are nearly infinite split-second configurations of the waterfall to examine the beauty of on your way down. Your own imagination isn't even a limit! You can do anything by any means, and nothing is laid out for you, which is a fantastic thing. You don't even have to do things in whatever ways seem ascribed by your identity, as proven by many a disabled person, or this Transformer.

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Thanks again, xkcd author Randall Munroe.

All seriousness aside, the best transformations are going to be the ones that blindside you anyway. Whether it feels like hell or like an opportunity (both is not out of the question) can, and usually will, depend heavily on how hard you try to control the things you can't control. And there will always, always be at least one little statistically significant chunk of variables, no matter how tucked away in a corner in a well-managed life they are, of things you can't control.

And that's not only okay -- it's necessary, and capitalizing on it helps you win at life.


Check out Part 4, coming Fall 2019! It will be a discussion about the nature of fear, and the nature of response to fear. As of right now, I believe it will be the final part to the series. Thanks for reading!