On The Art of Facing Things

What salmon know about how to defy gravity

Wikimedia commons

It turns out facing things is not as hard, not nearly as hard, as resisting them. But to face things, especially forces that oppose us, we must go against every instinct we have to continue to believe and do what we believed and did before.

Facing things requires we undo and unlearn the well-worn emotional habits that we have repeated so often we forget we can do something else, and mistake them for cause and effect, the way the world is and will always be.

Salmon have much to teach us about the art of facing things. In swimming up waterfalls, these remarkable creatures seem to defy gravity. It is an amazing thing to behold. A closer look reveals a wisdom for all beings who want to thrive.

What the salmon somehow know is how to turn their underside — from center to tail — into the powerful current coming at them, which hits them squarely and the impact then launches them out and further up the waterfall; to which their reaction is, again, to turn their underside back into the powerful current that, of course, again hits them squarely; and this successive impact launches them further out and up the waterfall. Their leaning into what they face bounces them further and further along their unlikely journey.

Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

The salmon shows the raging waterfall its tender side, the part that is most defenseless, the part that a fisherman would gut and all the loose pulsing life of its inner organs spills out. To have guts spill out like that makes me think about how strong our skins must be to hold in all the life that we keep integrating: It looks haphazard, a mess, when our guts are spilled. But inside, there’s an unseen order that keeps salmon, and humans living, that keeps us moving forward through the most unlikely of circumstances.

What does it mean to expose one’s tender belly to the elements, to face the strongest forces which are intent upon repelling us?

One would think such power, such force would be impossible to resist, that the salmon, or the person, has no other choice but to go with the flow, in the direction, with the momentum of the water, its power, what appears to be the source of power.

Water has the ability to adapt itself to any kind of container and is strong enough to bore through stone.

One must have a strong container to direct the flow of water, and this perhaps is where people, not salmon, think they must have a certain kind of power to be able to control the forces at work in their own lives.

But the salmon does not try to direct the water or the direction it is flowing. Yet salmon defy the dams that direct the powerful flow of water. So what is this that allows them to go against the strongest and powerful currents, to defy the strength of a waterfall and gravity itself?

Could it be that tenderness is disarming because those who are in a race to shore up bigger defenses cannot anticipate those who refuse to fight?

Even the raw power of the water cannot overcome the salmon who go their own way, who follow the call to live and to cultivate all that is yet to be born, what only they can cultivate.

I have found in my own life that when I stopped trying to get the love and attention and recognition I so desperately wanted from people who couldn’t give it to me, the people who could see me then appeared.

They say that love is the most powerful force in the universe. When faced with actual forces almost no one believes it, except maybe the salmon who have learned something about the power of love to create a different way.

A note about reference points: Fred Rogers famously said we should “look for the helpers,” in any situation where we are uncertain. Chances are good we’ll find them.

In my search through 331 images for salmon, not one photo pictured a living salmon. Many were photos of sushi. A few were salmon-colored rooms. A few of the photos of waterfalls featured women, some nude, or fisherman. Photos of dams showed neither people nor the wildlife affected by them.

I wonder if perhaps our difficulties in facing things, in knowing how to face the strange changing circumstances of our lives have something to do with our reference points — what we look to when we are looking around for clues as to how we might handle a situation. When we surround ourselves with a world with human beings at the center, and other living things dead or absent, is it any wonder we find only the solutions we’ve already thought of?

What other ways might we develop to solve problems or even understand the nature of our problem were we to expand the scope of whom and what we include as reference points?

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