Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pedaling uphill

Our minister told a story from the pulpit over a year ago that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I consider it a parable; she referred to it as an “old joke,” which I would like to think suggests merely that it’s more meaningful to me than it is to her and not that I’m so simplistic that what constitutes a joke to other people is a symbolic morality tale to me, though I admit that it’s quite possible that’s true.

The story – whether joke or parable -- tells of two people riding a tandem bicycle up a steep hill. Not only is it difficult to make progress forward; the hill is so steep that they are in danger of sliding backwards. Finally they reach the top. The one in front says, “What a ride! My quads are burning up! I wasn’t sure we were going to make it!” The one in back says, “I know. I was so afraid of backsliding, I had the brakes on the whole time.”

My cyber-colleague Michele Dortch, who writes the Integrated Mother blog, posted on Twitter yesterday that her intention for the day was “to move with the flow of change & stop trying to work against its current,” and I asked her if she knew that parable. She didn’t, and I couldn’t boil it down to Twitter’s requisite 140 characters, so I promised her I would tell it in today’s blog post.

It’s a story that means a lot to me. As I often say, I’m someone who loves routine – both actual routines and the whole idea of doing something in a diurnal or otherwise regularly scheduled fashion – and, by extension, I don’t always embrace change.

Several years ago, my friend Nancy invited our family over for dinner on Labor Day, which in our town is also usually the eve of the new school year. “Oh, that’s a great idea,” I said eagerly. “And if it works out well, then next year we’ll invite your family for a Labor Day, first-day-of-school-eve dinner.”

Nancy is too clear-eyed and practical to put up with me sometimes. “I’m inviting you for a dinner, not the launch of a new tradition,” she said bluntly.

But to me, it sounded like the perfect way to launch a tradition. So the next year we did invite them, and then they invited us again, and I thought we were on to something wonderful until the year after that, when the school calendar changed and school started for the first time the week before Labor Day. I called Nancy, full of anxiety, as soon as I found out. “It’s our turn to host, but I don’t know what to do,” I confessed. “Which night do you want to come over? Is our tradition a Labor Day dinner, or a first-day-of-school-eve dinner, now that they’re not one and the same?”

So yes, I do love traditions, and that’s okay. Not being one to embrace change isn’t always bad either – until you become the person putting the brakes on the bike as someone else struggles to ride it uphill. Every now and then I stop and look at a decision I’m making or an action I’m taking and ask myself that question: “In doing this, are you the one keeping the bike from reaching the crest of the hill? Is your tendency to avoid change really more like an inability to recognize the possibility for progress?”

Sometimes, yes. I try to keep that parable in mind, because it’s a story so relevant to my life and, often, to my faults. Working against the current can be challenging but ultimately productive: just ask a salmon. Keeping a bike from being able to pedal, not so productive. Yes, it’s just a parable – or, to a more sophisticated thinker, an old joke. But to me it’s tremendously informative, and a really useful image to keep in my sights.

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