On Why Resistance is Not Futile but is actually Essential
Those of you familiar with Douglas Adam’s The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will recognise the cry of “Resistance is futile!” from the Vogon guard. I read these books at a very impressionable age so forgive the reference to books that are fast becoming classics of the late twentieth century.
I learned a couple of very interesting things this week while cycling to work but I’m only going to focus on one today and save the other for another post. My place of work has changed location, meaning instead of a 20 minute stroll to work, I now have to cycle 25 minutes to get there. I haven’t cycled in years, having come off and left the surface of my knees and hands somewhere in Leicestershire about five years ago, so I came to it with reluctance again. It’s not the cycling that is my problem (well, OK, my undercarriage gets sore but that’s all) but the traffic. About half of my route to work is on much safer cycle paths and first thing in the morning, it’s bright and fresh and pleasant to ride. But there’s a significant slope(can’t call it a hill; it’s fairly flat here) all the way, so going to work, I end up free-wheeling a lot.
I hate it. I hate free-wheeling. At first I thought it was the speed and then I checked my cycle computer and realised that on the flat, pedalling hard, I was going at about the same speed as I was when free-wheeling down hill. Think again, Viv. Is it being out of control? No, because even though I am going quite fast, I have good brakes and can handle the bike well enough.
It was something far more subtle than either of these things that makes me hate free-wheeling.
It’s the lack of resistance.
Now going home in the evening I have to battle bad-tempered drivers, tired legs and a hill(sort of) much of the way. When I hit the cycle path for the last mile and a bit, I am glad to get onto the flat again where I can pedal normally, but I feel quite different to how I do when I reach the end of a hill without pedalling. I feel I have achieved something under my own steam, by my own efforts alone. It’s how I feel about having written X number of posts and not how I feel about X number of hits on the blog: it’s something I have achieved.
Now, taking this thought a little further, I began to think about how uneasy not making an effort on my own behalf makes me and how I dislike inertia of any form and it took me back just over a year to an experience I shared with some of my students at the local maritime college. Now what we did was a watered-down(sorry, no pun intended) version of the training done by rig workers, rescue workers, lifeboat crew and others. Until this time I never quite understood why people wearing life jackets and in calm waters, drown. Die of exposure or injuries maybe, not drown. I soon discovered why. Two of the exercises involved having to climb out of the water onto a floating something(a life raft or a rope ladder) and the upper body strength needed to heave oneself, wet clothes and all, from zero to several feet above the waterline is phenomenal. In a real incident I’d have died. I simply could not do it. I was aided in getting into the life raft but without that help…..a watery grave awaited. You see, I was floating in 4 metres of water, as was the raft. There was nothing to push against. Same for the rope ladder; nothing to steady yourself against and use for pushing off from.
It was, simply put, a mind blowing experience for me and has haunted me ever since.
All these things together have made me question quite why I have such a hard time just going with the flow and why I always take the hard way in anything. At first I was fearful that this was a grave character flaw and that I was doomed to constant effort and no rewards. I’ve thought about it deeply and wonder if in fact it is a gift instead.
Few human achievements have been easy ones. Those that look easy are almost always backed by years of unseen effort (David Almond “It only took me twenty years to become an overnight success.”) Going back to pre-history, some have reasoned that one of the reasons they Neanderthals vanished was they had stagnated. Their tools never changed in thousands of years; they stayed exactly the same. If it worked OK, they saw no need to find another way. This mindset may have meant that their capacity to adapt to change was lessened. Throughout history, most worthwhile achievements have been against the tide, against the flow, fought for inch by inch by pioneers who often died to make those small steps.
More than thirty years ago I had a dream where I was walking with a much taller person whose face I could not see, and I held their hand as I walked. When I let go of that hand, the pavement I was walking on became impossible to walk on; it seemed to move backwards or my feet could not grip and I fell. Friction is what gives traction. Too smooth a path is impossible to walk on; try walking on ice some time.
I’ve also been haunted by Kate Bush’s song Rubber Band Girl. The lyrics I think of are: See those trees, bend in the wind? I think they’ve got a lot more sense than me. See, I try to resist. I thought and thought about this, endlessly lately, whether I agreed with it. But later lyrics change this: If I could learn to give(twang) like a rubber-band I’d be back on my feet! Elastic holds kinetic energy that can be used to propel you; the song even mentions a catapult. Trees that bend do not break, but they bend back to their place and are not swept away. It’s another form of resistance, a harnessing of power from the opposing forces.
This is what hardship and difficulty can do for some: it can be a source of power. Much of the martial arts teach about using the energy of your enemy, and not your own, to defeat them. For me, I need to fight, to use that energy and momentum to achieve things. That’s why for me, the path of least resistance is not my path at all. I need the grit in the machine to power me, the hill to climb under my own steam. And it’s why inertia is death.
Some years ago, I was sent a design for a perpetual motion machine. I am to this day baffled about why and who sent it (the name on the design was Oliver Plunkett and I have no clue how he got my postal address or even who he was) Even to me, the non-physicist, the machine was moonshine. It’s an impossible dream, the concept essentially of something for nothing. Everything that is worth something costs in terms of effort somewhere along the line; there really is no such thing as a free lunch.
That’s why I don’t look for the easy way. I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.