I’m the one who sits by the side of the river and watches the flow pass by. This was written all over me my whole life, easily read by all the teachers who saw it and encouraged more involvement, greater challenges, and even more easily read once it was literally written on me, with everyone who gazed upon my ‘quiet observer’ tattoos instantly recognizing the truth of the label.
I’ve spent my whole life watching the flow rush by until my biggest accomplishment was turning myself into the definitive statement on non-involvement, a walking blueprint for steering clear of the river. People say I look young, but it has nothing to do with the physical appearance. They can tell I’ve never really jumped in, my bone-dry clothes giving off the air of an unopened toy. They can appreciate that I’m still in the package (there is a certain novelty to the pristine gleam of something untouched), but still think that the purpose of a toy is to be played with, thrown around, broken in some way but not destroyed, simply given the feel of having its edges roughed up by adventure.
So it goes that the flow is very appealing to most. Oftentimes people come and join me at my place by the side of the river. We get to talking and I let myself be an open ear for them. When their stories or problems come tumbling out, it’s always exclusively because of their time spent in the flow. It seems to upset them, and I try to offer advice, but I can’t truly, can only give an inexperienced opinion whose ineffective nature is hopefully balanced out by its raw honesty. I’ve seen the pointless nature of the flow, as some, maybe more than we think, have, seen how no matter how much it tosses you around it all leads to a waterfall in the end, throwing you over the cliff with complete disregard for all the work you put in to get that far. It makes it difficult for me to not exasperatedly tell them to just leave the flow, to stay here with me on the side of the river, but I’m not naïve enough to think the false nature of the flow makes the waves any less terrifying, so I know to tell them it doesn’t matter would be dismissive to the power of the river, to how fast it runs by, how deeply it affects.
Sometimes when people sit with me in my spot, when we’re both watching the flow pass by but not entering it, I get the sense that they are the same, that they’d prefer to not jump in and take instead the peace of observing as I have. It is in these moments that I’m forced to look at how lonely the spot by the side of the river may be, as my heart rustles at having a companion, a hand to hold on to as I struggle to remain un-swept away by it all, but the next time I see them, when their clothes are wet, dampened from having leapt in again, I realize how undeniable it is to this species, and try my best to hold back my resentment, the sting of losing another to the great torrent.
Especially lonely is the male who chooses to ignore the flow, as its tendencies run parallel to courtship. Females have no choice in entering the madness. Even the tiniest shred of beauty causes the intrinsically shallow nature of the flow to perk up, hands grabbing wildly at hair and arms, dragging girls kicking and screaming into interaction. This, of course, makes the females smarter, more sculpted by the tide, eroded, molded and made into competent, or at the least, more experienced, swimmers. But while they may not have a choice to enter, they all love the aggression of the flow in their very fiber. DNA strands twist and curl around the essential pull strings of the heart and make them respond to their natural state of being. It’s strictly a cosmetic victory, us having escaped the label of animals, and we still purr, engines whirring beneath the surface when we are stroked to the liking of our gender, undeniable and pure. The male proves himself by jumping into the flow, by knowing how to handle it. He who looks at the water with no fear, and instead knows how to expertly cut through the waves with hands like flesh daggers, will reap the benefits of a planet of women whose human shackles, whether they know it or not, are sending out desperate cries for adept swimmers every second.
To see the reaction to males willing to churn against the tide is to know that your role of observer, the title that seems to be at the beating heart of you, appoints you a complete antithesis of what makes the feminine side of the species tick in general. There is a great terror that cuts through any supposed nihilistic loopholes discovered from looking at the flow pass by for so many years, one that says an observer looking for love is a battle against nature itself.
Or love may be the only crutch, the beacon of idealism showing the way through the cloudy, misty fog that hangs over the water most times, and this, perhaps, explains humanity’s undying obsession with picking at it endlessly through various mediums of entertainment. To hear our inexhaustible rolodex of songs and stories dedicated to what should be our most overused plot device is to know what is truly special about love: its ability to dismiss the rigid rules of the flow, to make it OK for two people to sit side by side along the river, naked and for once actually breathing, calmed by the rare removal of the mask, the backstage time between endless nightly shows for the benefit of society.
Mostly though, I am alone here, watching everyone else either gleefully or logically jump in and get swept along. It IS a logical decision to jump in, one as devoid of opinion as plugging in a machine to make it work. The mistake here is thinking the rebels are doing something to dismiss the flow. Anyone who jumps in, even those who fight desperately, gasping as their bodies beat against the natural current, is helping the flow along. Involvement is involvement. We talk a lot about our great thinkers, artists, poets, but without them making some kind of effort to join in, we would never hear of them. The view from the side of the river does offer a unique perspective, but it means nothing without the discovery of it. Those who change our culture have balanced enough time in and outside the river to try and change the flow with their altered viewpoint. Those who simply revel in the epiphanies of non-involvement are our mad, our introverted, our forgotten, ornaments that would dazzle if only they were to be actually hung on the tree for all to see.
Devoted to a life of placid perfection, I have yelped at the cold slap in the face when I have, in those rare moments, deviated and left my spot at the side of the river. My interactions with girls have left my jaw agape simply from the feeling of being connected, from having some stake in how the water turns and bends. How easy it is to laugh heartily at all the swimmers as beads of distraught sweat form on them, knowing their troubles come only from their consent at entering the system, and how jarring is it then to feel yourself hopelessly caught in that same flow, desperate to know how to navigate, salty water in your mouth, a lifetime of regret pouring over you, seeing the one who made you feel something torn away, that cold slab of inevitability in your stomach suddenly letting you know that her very inclusion in our species makes certain rules unavoidable. Yes, that is my true pain with females, the burning regret of a man who continuously snubbed swimming lessons for years upon years, mocking them viciously with everything he had in his heart, only to learn that success only comes with jumping into the water.
This mockery I’ve worked so hard to make my hallmark always comes so easily until the day you start to wonder what the water feels like, realizing that the chains of the species are shackled on your wrists as well. Your sneering dissection of the painfully obvious false nature of it all starts to wane in the face of its sheer power. Fake it may be, but it is still the entire reason for this world operating, the gasoline of the automobile of life, and in the end, horrifically, you get the sense that idealism is nothing more than walking around, saying over and over again, with a heart full of desperation to convince everyone, but mostly yourself, that a car can run just fine without any gas.
Worse, you get the sense that this image is achingly devoid of originality, that the disciple of noninvolvement has already devolved into a Hollywood cliché, with endless stories preaching the fun to be had when the repressed observer decides to jump in. Our culture is stuffed with various religious pamphlets displaying the glory of bowing down before the flow. As you mature, you can develop the right kind of body to feel the ground pulsating beneath you, hand extended, asking you to take it and join in the game. Any statements leaking a bitter attitude over this entire experience being a game are relegated to the ones on the side of the river, dutifully dismissed for their hopelessly puerile and bright-eyed attitude towards the way things are, or should I say, the way things ought to be.
That’s what is at the nucleus of me and any like me, a bruised and bloody forehead from banging our skulls against the undeniable flow, stuck on that word ‘ought’ like a teenager with an unrequited crush. The flow is meant for, and rewards handsomely, those who accept the rushing river as the way things ARE, and then accept the imperfections and learn how to slice through them.
But no matter the attitude of those who jump in, we all get devoured by the flow, chewed up and eaten by existence, tossed and thrown around after having given our consent to be a part of things. It’s a beautiful monster whose cage we throw ourselves into, and our love for it can be seen in how we proudly display the marks its claws left. Everywhere you go you can see the stories of people who have been mutilated by the beast, selling those bloody marks as proof that they DID IT, got out there, rassled with the monster, and got their check mark of having accomplished the one true life experience, the one that proves you were here, the one signature that everyone seems to want in their yearbook of life: involvement.
So what can I, the one constantly by the side of the river with only a few minor scratches from the beast, tell you? You’ll meet a lot of people in this world, all with different personalities, and thoughts, and feelings, but you’ll notice, when you know what to look for, that they all have wet clothes and scars from playing in the water. And if you haven’t jumped in yet, they’ll sit there with you a bit, chew on your perspective, maybe even revel in the similarities for a moment, but they will always, always see your dry clothes and jump back in, looking to get slapped around by the gorgeous, unpredictable deluge, waving their hands with frantic glee as they look back to the shore, inviting you to come join in.
Still I sit, ignoring their pleas, some darkly stubborn part of my heart making me see their invitation as fake, while the idealism does its best to suppress the pounding, shameful jealousy that whimpers under layers of arrogant nihilism, always reminding me that simply by being human, my eyes will always betray me, wandering towards the river with an inherent curiosity.
Still I sit.