Fishing and the Effort Paradox
After 32 years together, we had a routine that satisfied us both. After a day’s fishing, I’d jump out of the canoe and start carrying up all the gear, except my rod, to the truck. Meanwhile, my husband George would sit on the shore, smoking a cigarette and gazing peacefully at one of his favorite spots on earth.
He never got tired of fishing that pond, even though it’s so small he could see it all from one spot. He always said it was different every time. So that last five minutes or so was precious to him. Then he’d load the canoe on the truck and carefully tie it down with knots from his Coast Guard days, which he tried unsuccessfully to teach me, so it wouldn’t bounce loose on the rough road back. He never hurried. He wasn’t the hurrying type.
But I’m different, always looking for more, better, faster. Always starting on the next thing before I’m done with the first. Buttering a second piece of bread with the last bite of the first one still uneaten, singing the first words of the next song on the album before the music begins. As you might imagine, it took some practice to get our timing in sync, in life as well as fishing. But over the years I learned to do my part and let George do his.
Instead of hovering as he loaded the canoe, I’d go back to the pond and wade out for a few last casts. The water was usually cold, the light fading, the bugs getting serious and I hardly ever caught anything. But those moments were some of the most peaceful I have ever known.
I’ve been thinking about the pursuit of inner peace lately, in part because so many people I know are exploring yoga. But for me and a lot of other Mainers, the outdoors is where peace is most likely to be found. We don’t say we’re seeking inner peace, of course. We say a bad day’s fishing is better than a good day at work. Along with the great view at the top of a mountain, there’s also the moments when the worried voice inside our heads goes silent. Skiing, swimming, snowmobiling the list goes on and on. Physical exertion in a natural setting opens a kind of side door to inner peace.
And that brings to mind the Effort Paradox, an interesting concept I came across a few years ago while reading about memory. We’ve all had moments where information – all too often a name that should come easily -- is right on “the tip of the tongue.” In fact, memory experts say, variations on those words are used to describe the experience in almost every language.
The paradox is that the harder you try to recall the word, the farther away it slips. Concentrated attention, as one expert put it, can paralyze memory. Some people extend the idea to learning, saying a strong desire to learn a new skill may provoke tension that blocks the ability to succeed. It’s like going on a diet just makes you hungrier. It’s why you can’t wish yourself in love.
So how do you capture a memory that’s on the tip of your tongue? Sometimes you can come at it sideways, by running through the alphabet, for example, in an effort to trigger the word you’re searching for by finding its first letter. Often, however, it’s better to just stop trying to capture the word. Put it out of your mind. Evoke the “lack of effort” doctrine and hope the word will pop up later, when you least expect it.
I think the Effort Paradox also comes into play in the desire for inner peace. The harder you try, the more elusive those moments become, just like that word on the tip of your tongue. I think we know, instinctively if not consciously, that peace comes only at its own pace. But sometimes you can find your own personal side door.
Some may find it on a yoga mat, some at prayer, and others in the company of the right person. And for me and many, many others that side door often opens in the natural world, where suddenly, while watching a bird, paddling a canoe or wading into a pond for just a few more casts, you find yourself quietly at peace with the world.