Row Your Boat: A Philosophy


There are some things in life that I have always taken at face value. For example, I never questioned why the Mediterranean Sea was named as such. It was only after dabbling in Latin that I leaned it means ‘Middle Earth’ Sea. Or the fact that cats don’t typically have five toes on each foot, but typically four on the back and up to seven on the front. Then there is the wild fact that flammable and inflammable have the same meaning.

There is a blind spot that all of us have. It’s right to the side of your direct vision, just nearly in your peripheral. You never notice it though because your brain fills in the blanks. Just as you didn’t notice your nose in the bottom of your vision until I mentioned it just now. We glaze over everyday occurrences, accepting them as simply being. We don’t dig deeper than the surface, because we have never even considered that there might be another layer underneath the veneer.

So it was for me with this children’s song. I had always thought thought that it was a dreamy, albeit odd, choice of lyrics that sounded nice together when sung out of sync with others. But I have a daughter now, which means I have heard my share of nursery rhymes on repeat for months. First it was the muffin man. Then the star twinling in the night. Now life is but a dream.

As I listened to these lyrics, and for first time digested them (more than likely due to my brain sitting in its own waste after countless nights of insufficient sleep), I wondered at the meaning of the words. Why had they been chosen? Did they have a deeper meaning. I have done no research on this, because I wanted to figure out what this song meant to me, the translation that only I could give it, before I was told what it means. The following monologue is the philosophy that I have formulated from this simple song.

Row, Row, Row

My personal mantra has always been, Do not hurry; do not rest’, said by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This, I believe would be a summation of this nursery song.

The repetition of ‘row’ is important I think, especially in the age of instant gratification. A project is not something that you can attempt once, not if you wish to grow. Just as you cannot complete a journey with a single step. You must keep pushing yourself. Keep rowing.

In my personal opinion, and this will be quite controversial, novel experiences are overrated. I would never go so far as to say that they are unnecessary. On the contrary, we must experience life afresh constantly. This is the purpose of art, of traveling, of learning. However, there are those who would say that every experience must be novel. That you must not visit the same restaurant twice during one vacation. That ever experience must be a new sensory explosion.

Good or bad, new experiences are new and new is good. Repetition is old and old is bad.

What is left behind with this sort of thought process is the idea of perfection, which can only come from carefully wrought practice in the form of repetition. Whether is it playing the piano, learning a new language, or brewing that perfect cup of tea, nothing excellent comes without some form of repetition. The same can be said for novel experiences. They are novel only to the inexperienced, but to the hosts, to the masters, they are the results of the same action having been repeated tens of thousands of times.

We must not shy away from routine. Routine is the backbone to mastery. It is the early mornings going to the gym to achieve that chiseled six pack. It is the 500 words a day that will eventually result in a novel. It is the daily calorie deficit necessary for a good diet. Simple repetition, not neglected, over a long period of time, results in more positive results than the crash diets and all-nighters before tests.

Row, row, row. Write, write, write. Insert your own verb and repeat, repeat, repeat.

Your Boat

After I graduated college, I had no idea what to do with my life. In a matter of a few years, I’d failed gloriously in any number of ways: failed at business; failed at personal relationships; failed at making it in a new city. I had to move to a whole new country to regain a semblance of who I was.

You see, as a teenager, I was too obsessed with what I was supposed to be. What I had grown up imagining myself to be. Or rather, imagining the situations and environments I was supposed to be dropped into later in life. Every time I imagined myself or the future, nothing about me changed; it was always my environment that looked different. For so long I had been molded by society, by religion, by the people around me. The pressure had formed me into this paper doll: thin and flexible, able to be dressed up for whatever expected situation popped up on the road that was already being prepared for me. I could have stayed on that road if I hadn’t been so stubborn. If I hadn’t begin traveling. If I hadn’t gotten used to being alone.

The jump across the country for university was a good jolt to my system, as was a few weeks in Africa. But it wasn’t until I traveled to China for a year that I began to confront myself. Even after nine months there, the mirror had only begun to clear of that pesky fog. Years later—after graduation and moving to another city, after failing at business and leaving all of my past friends behind, after moving to a whole new country and beginning to ask deep questions about myself and the society and religion that I had been raised in—I began to see myself clearly for the first time.

It was around this time that my life turned around. I figured out my life dream: be a writer. A real writer, someone who can make a living from it. I also figured out what I would do until I reached that point: teach. I met the girl who would stick with me through two and a half years of long distance relationship as I obtained my mater’s degree. The girl I would eventually marry. My mind changed in many ways. I emerged from my chrysalis. I was me, the me with skin that fit. It had been molded to me, not I to it.

I say all of this to explain that there are plenty of different boats in this life: pleasure vessels with thousands of passengers going in the same aimless direction; military boats with groups of like-minded individuals devoting themselves to a singular purpose; there are hardworking fishing boats only aiming to survive until the next day. And nobody tells you this, but you can check onto any boat you want. The tickets cost different amounts, and the company could be sparse or thick, but it’s your choice. You have to find the boat that suits you. For me, it was a little dinghy that somehow has been able to cross vast seas and accommodate family I could only have dreamed of having.

Find your own boat and fix it on the landmark closest to your dream. And don’t let mother nature or any of her cohorts throw you off your path. Grit your teeth, tie yourself to the mast, and break through the storms. We only get one life, so might as well sail it on your terms.

Gently Down the Steam

Gently. Without disturbing the water. Without disturbing other boats. Simply gliding along, but still rowing, still pushing forward, but not displacing others in doing so.

One must find their own pace in life, but that is not all. One must also not allow that pace to interfere with his relationships, wither to friends and family or to strangers. Traversing life in a gentle fashion often conjures up images of soft actions, of being a pushover. But let us not forget that gentle is the key to a gentleman. We mustn’t let ideas of manliness allow us to knock down others in our pursuits. A gentleman doesn’t have to soft, but he must be gentle when the times call for it.

The second part of this line might seem counterintuitive. We are often told that revolutionaries do not follow the flow. They push upstream, powerful salmon destroying themselves across their impossible journey.

I agree that the path less travelled is more exciting, but no one ever said that it must be upstream. The way I view gently drifting down the stream is not as going with the flow of people but with the flow of time.

Do not rush ahead and do not lag behind. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily

I heard from somewhere that if you condensed the history of the universe down into a calendar year, that humans wouldn’t show up until11:59 on New Year’s Eve. Our existence as a race is short, and as individuals even more so.

With such a limited time to experience life, why waste time on negative emotions, when they can be avoided that it. Life is sometimes tragic, but it doesn’t always have to be. If we can face the passing of our lives with a stoic merriment, we can suck more joy from the marrow of reality.

The rhythmic repetition of this word, ‘merrily’, emphasizes this point in my view. Every day ought to star off merry, middle out merrily, and end with a tipple of merriment. Rose-colored glasses ought to be part of out daily fashion.

Now, I do not mean to say that we ought to ignore our problems or those of the world at large, but that we ought to face them with positivity. Action matters; worry does not. Worrying is the opposite of merriment. We ought to enjoy drifting when possible, toil with a smile on our face when necessary, and bring joy to those sharing the same boat.

Life is But a Dream

Dreams are short, chaotic, and controlled not by a logical plot line, but by the colors of emotions. We enter into dreams without knowing where the entrance is, and exit in the same way. So is life.

Oftentimes, as in a dream, we feel that we have no control. That our conscious is trapped in a shell tossed about by the shifting scenery. But with enough willpower and awareness, we can take control of our lives. We can move the dream around us. Influence its actions.

The act of waking can be harsh if you are wrapped within a warm dream. It is over before you realize it and the more steps you take, the more it slips through your fingers as to try to reclaim it. The stages of our life could be thought of as dreams. Those who peaked in high school are always chasing after that dream. That what ifs. The could haves.

Enjoy your dreams. Achieve them. And then move onto the next. Because people rarely have one dreams. Even if we don’t remember them, each night is usually packed with a succession of loosely connected dreams. Our lives are the same way. If we can accept this fatalistic view, we should realize that now is all we get. This is it.

Sweet dreams.