A few weeks ago, some of my high school buddies and I met up early on a Saturday morning in Lillington, NC. Our purpose, of course, was to celebrate the final weekend of bachelorhood of one of our own — my friend James Wallace. Our mission was to paddle as far up the Cape Fear River as we could before lunch, at which point we would drift back down towards our starting point and head off for additional bachelor weekend activities.
It was a great day to be on the river. The week before had been scorching hot — one of the hottest on record — but amazingly, we had just enough cloud cover to keep the sun from beating down on us, but not so much that it ever felt overcast or got unbearably humid. The water was cool, but certainly not the biting cold I am used to in mountain streams. We saw only two other boats on the river the whole day, giving us freedom to shout at each other from hundreds of yards away, goof off and pretty much do whatever we felt like the moment called for.
It was great to get to hang out with my friends again. It had been years since we had all been together for more than a passing moment, and while we had a tentative schedule in mind, we really had no firm agenda for the day.
It had been a while since I had done any paddling, and it took me a few minutes to get comfortable in my kayak. I didn’t mind taking it slow at first though, because I had a great view of my friends Craig and James Alverson trying to figure out how to maneuver their canoe up river. Eventually they got it together, but it took some effort. (Remember, you want to paddle in the same direction as your partner, and the back of the boat always needs to follow the front.) James Wallace took to it right away and started paddling in circles around the rest of us as we got a feel for the water.
Paddling is one of those things that you can’t really teach somebody how to do. You just have to do it. You have to find your own rhythm — in and out, left to right, up and down, back and forth, again and again. The way you grip your oar, the angle you push against the water, the time you put between strokes, all are things you have to figure out for yourself, and the only way to figure out what works for you is to get in the boat and try. At the same time, what works for you in one situation may not work in the next. On any successful paddling trip, there are times when you have to fight the current and pull your boat upstream, there are times when you can row along with the current and make tremendous progress, there are times when you have to navigate rapids and focus on keeping your boat as stable as you can, and there are times when you just need to let go and drift for a while.
Being on the river also gave me a chance to clear my mind and process some of the things that have been going on in my life over the past few months. I enrolled in graduate school after accepting a call to prepare for ministry. I left a job that I had worked hard to get, and that had seemed so important to me only a year before. I became a father.
Then I began to think about all of the things going on my friends’ lives. Really, although we all started from the same place just a few years ago, we are all at very different points in our lives now. Craig and I are working through grad school. James Alverson just graduated from college and is trying to build a career in the radio industry. Justin is excited about finishing up his work at N.C. State. I am a father. James Wallace is about to be a husband. We’ve all taken different paths, but aren’t they all, at the same time, right paths?
It’s so easy to get caught up with the details of life. It’s easy to start comparing your progress and your work to other people’s. It is easy to get in such a comfortable, predictable pattern of paddling that you don’t even notice the river has changed completely. It is easy to think that, in order to be successful, you just need to mimic what someone else is doing — especially if he’s the guy that always seems to be paddling circles around everyone else — but chances are, what he’s doing is what works best for him, and it isn’t going to do the same thing for you.
You have to find your own rhythm. It’s important to know which direction on the river your heading. It’s great to share the journey with your friends. But as far as the actual work of paddling goes, it’s up to you to put the oar in the water and see what you can do.