Against the flow


6 Jun 2018

Some years ago a young friend asked me how I was. Deciding to vary the ritual answers–good, or OK–I said that I was going with the flow. He came back at me, ‘Only dead fish go with the flow’.

His phrase has stayed with me, teased me. Certainly many fish go upstream, jumping up rapids. But surely there must be some contrary fish, just as there are contrary human beings, that take the easy way downstream. At a deeper level, though, the image started me thinking about following Jesus, seeking holiness as Pope Francis describes it in his recent letter.

The image of fish going upstream suggests that if we follow Jesus we shall be swimming against the current, riding into the wind. The things that are important to us and guide the little decisions we take will differ from what the media and advertisers and many of our acquaintances say is important. We won’t put a high value on wealth, status, instant gratification and high consumption. We shall value more highly faithfulness, generosity and compassion, even if they cost us.

The image of the fish swimming into the current also suggests that holiness and following Jesus are not about doing heroic things such as jumping waterfalls but about facing upstream and getting on with it. Fish naturally swim into the current and don’t even think of doing anything else. It’s simply what they do.

Similarly, in our following of Jesus, going against the flow does not generally require heroic decisions but the small daily calls to keep others in mind, to be unselfish and to look to the wider good of society and the environment. It’s about meaning and saying please, thank you and sorry, not about dragging people from burning cars. Through these small habits, acting unselfishly becomes second nature. We are not slaves to duty but find generosity good and rewarding.

Even so, following Jesus still means swimming upstream, feeling the force of the current that encourages us to prize wealth, security and pleasure. To live generously and trustingly it is important to be reflective. It is easy to miss the daily opportunities to live for others and not simply for ourselves. Giving time to reflect on the day ahead and the day passed helps us to be attentive.

It is also helpful to reflect on the movements of our hearts. Continually swimming against the current can be tiring. We naturally dream of turning around and going with the flow and find all kinds of reasons for doing so. If we are in the habit of attending to our feelings, noticing which ones lead us to a deeper satisfaction and which ones to an immediate pleasure that becomes stale, we can remain constant in our path.

If it is true that only dead fish go with the flow, we human beings can decide which way we want to go. But even if we allow ourselves to go with the flow for a while, that does not mean we are dead. We can always come to life again and find a richly human way of going.

Fr Andy Hamilton SJ is editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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