A River Runs Between Us

“It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.”          – Norman Maclean

I was sitting on the couch in our family room, and it was later in the evening after many of the kids had gone to bed.  All was quiet (for the moment).  As I turned to the final page of a Rivers Runs Through It, I saw the last line that had been prefaced in the foreword, “I am haunted by waters.”  Yet in a book full of reflections and representations, as I was reading the last few passages, I suddenly found myself stopping at the line listed above. 

Among many thought-provoking quotes in this classic book about life and loss set in the moving waters of Montana, this one gave me the most pause of all.  Maybe it is the psychologist in me, or maybe it is the direct channel in my own life and that of many others.  Yet just as the fish often eluded the protagonist in the book, so those close to us often elude us in daily life.  If ever there was a perpetual struggle, it is the fact that those we love and see the most are often those by which we struggle to unite and know as we desire. 

When Maclean uttered those timeless words, no doubt like most of us, he was reflecting on his own life.  Yet while the book offers various musings about why this might be true, a fuller understanding of why this is was left deep in the current for readers like me to consider further. 

As days have passed since reading this, I have repeatedly come back to a few ideas about why this seems to cut into the heart of our human experience.  For starters, most of us (at any given time) tend to be a people of will and drive, often focused on what needs to happen and what we do (and feel) when it doesn’t.  In the process, when people we love the most don’t concur with our willful, driven behaviors, we tend to be more reactive than reflective, and thus often lose out on the potential for understanding that might ultimately bring us closer.  For example, as a parent myself (even as a child psychologist), I recognize that  when it comes to my kids, I am more oriented towards achieving compliance than understanding especially the busier and more demanding a situation is.  While reasonable, this also can serve to reduce opportunities for unity through understanding instead of compliance through demanding. 

It’s also true, though, that even if we were to understand each other better, it wouldn’t necessarily bring us closer (although I would argue that empathy and responsiveness are the framework by which all good relationships are built).  The reason this is that sometimes what we come to know about another annoys us or altogether infuriates us.  While we might love someone dearly, the better we know his or her habits and idiosyncrasies, the more it can grate on us in a perpetual way.  In this case, we are left with a few key options beyond change of self and others, one of which is to move around and away from that which bothers us the most.  And so we may find that others elude us not because they are necessarily trying to be evasive, but because we are collecting avoiding what is required to forge a closer bond.

Still, as water runs deep as do we, and even in the presence of understanding and a focus on unity, it seems that this inherent elusiveness may not always be a harbinger of bad things to come.  Although the book ends on a somber note, with the death of the protagonist’s brother and a sense of detachment from his father, I do think that in our want to be with others in a closer way, we create expectations that spawn more disappointment than is good.  While prioritizing mutuality and connectedness is something most of us need to aspire towards more, the world appears oriented best when we cultivate a sense of altruism and gratitude for what our loved ones bring to us, not a sense of disappointment and loss for what they do not. 

It’s easy to want it all —- an intimate, mutual, satisfying relationship —-from those we love the most.  But in desiring a relationship to its fullness, and being disappointed when it fails to reach these heights, we fail to see what relationships actually can be, which is a privileged partnership into the vulnerable, intimate recesses of each of our lives.  Even the most outgoing of persons harbors a private world of great vastness, a good degree of which is not even known to the individual.  The degree to which we become part of this vacillates during a lifetime, but always leaves a footprint in their journey and an impression in ours. 

Recently, my wife and I have had a number of conversations with a couple of dear friends going through a difficult situation.  It’s exhausting and emotional, yet also humbling that they would be willing to share this with us.  While it might be easier to recognize this with our friends and acquaintances, it seems we should also honor this with those connected by genetics and romantic covenants instead of constantly being focused on the waterways that flow between us.  We can easily point out the ways in which we are ebbing in our relationships with others.  But as mysterious and frustrating as relationships can be, we might be better served to first focus on all the meaningful and interesting ways we do flow and grow together, and the richness it provides for our lives. 

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