Rowing with oars

11th October  2012

Everyone must row with the oars he has – English Proverb

I find this one quite intriguing.  I want to say extremely rudely, sorry “No shit, Sherlock” because it seems so obvious!!  I believe the meaning is that as we go through life rowing, we have different (oars) things at our disposal with which to row and we must use what we have.  These will affect and possibly limit our rowing capability. Firstly this includes the things we were born with such as personal qualities, intelligence, humour, creativity, the senses, physical attributes, skills etc  .  Secondly they could be referring to external things such as objects and money, contacts and training.

For me this proverb  brings up a simple image of someone in a pretty English rowboat on the River Thames, (being an English proverb),  looking around for a way to propel the boat and seeing, thank goodness a set of oars.   We expect the oars to be a certain size and shape with which to do their job and to hopefully fit into the rowlocks (hope that’s the right word) otherwise it will be a lot harder going.  And off we go.

This is an interesting choice of metaphor because I think oars are pretty standard.  Like umbrellas they have not changed a huge amount over the years. They have a stick in order to get leverage and magnify our physical capability, and a paddle which must be wide enough to press against the water so that we can move.  Ask any keen rower and no doubt there is another world out there of materials, weights, shapes, sizes and  aquadynamic (I think I just made that up as I am not sure if ergonomics is correct) properties but I will put those aside for now.    This is a good metaphor because one would assume that the person in the rowboat does not have a choice of oars, being out on the water and all, so he must make do.

But the fact that this has become an English proverb and better yet is popular enough to be repeated and printed on this daily calendar which is sold by the thousands I imagine, means that sometimes we need to state the obvious to snap out of our reverie and put life into perspective.  Of course few people would take an hour a day like I am now, to really think about the quotes especially as these calendars are most often used in the workplace, but a little influence on each person is better than none.  Mother Theresa is quoted as saying something like how each drop in the ocean (of things we achieve) seems worthless but the ocean would be less because of it.  If  I haven’t yet written about that one,  I shall soon!  Anyway this proverb seems as obvious as ”I need oxygen in order to live”  OMG I could write about that too, now I think about it.  I might make up a few proverbs of my own sometime..

Anyway I digress.  And I’ve forgotten where I was going with this so I will just start off down another track.  OK, so we are born with some oar qualities.  Our genes may include some wonderful  human traits if we are lucky.  For my part I am very happy to be born with all the usual bits and pieces, though I did get an extra toe which they saw fit to quickly remove!  I have to digress again now, sorry.  There is an amazing chap called Nick somebody who was born in Australia without arms or legs and he now lives in America and is a shining example of what can be done without a full set of oars but I will get back to him later.  My personal oar qualities involve being a quick learner and quick to get bored also.  What I completely missed out on was the gene that coordinates your body when you are going backwards. Lack of spatial awareness and kinesthesis.  It’s a wonder I don’t kill myself rollerblading!  Anyhow, unfortunately this skill or complete lack of it has meant that after 13 years in the same house, I still cannot reverse my car into my carport so that it is roughly parallel.   I have also nearly taken out the side mirrors on a number of occasions on the post despite it being a sizeable carport.  All my car accidents have involved going backwards, very slowly and not realising how close I am to something.  Also I have a curved  100 metre driveway with a hill on one side and a sharp drop to the other, with very little extra room and you would need to give me at least 20 minutes to reverse down it.  I would rather ask a perfect stranger to do it for me than the risk the damage to my car, my hip pocket and my self-esteem.    So what are your oars like?  I guess we all have an idea of our strengths and weaknesses (cleverly disguised as more strengths if you are in an interview of course) and we may or may not be accurate in our assessment.  In fact this is where we can be wonderfully, beautifully or painfully wrong!!  This could take hours and hours to expand on but the very short story is that you could put two people side by side, twins even, with exactly the same oars but one may believe he has the finest oars in the world and the other think the opposite.

My point here is that depending on what oars you think you have, your life may be remarkably different.  We scratch our heads in confusion when we see someone as amazing, talented and with huge potential who isn’t a ‘success’ yet the less talented person next to him is rich and famous with a tenth of the other’s apparent attributes.  The problem is that all the attributes of the oar must align.  The oars of the unsuccessful person might look perfect and be perfectly formed, yet weight two tonnes, (weighed down perhaps by mental anguish, fear, insecurity, a lifetime of self criticism etc  ) and he can’t in fact even pick up his oars in order to start rowing.

Back to the wonderful Nick, born without arms and legs.  So there is this kid, he’s about 30 now I think, born with oars which included only a stick and no paddle on the end.  This is a metaphor, not an actual description.   But he needs to row and he has an incredible attitude to life and far from being daunted,  he decides instead to learn what he can do with this stick.  It doesn’t seem to bother him a bit.  He shines literally!! His smile could light up a town.  He is the happiest rower in the pond.  He finds ways to manoeuvre it so that he can do much of what he needs.  And his sunny nature and willingness to try anything win him friends who will push his boat for  him when he gets stuck.  He doesn’t just have his oars, he has the whole pond’s oars. He can dive, swim, etc and is now expecting a baby.  There is a lovely film about Nick on YouTube probably that will make you cry.  His career I believe, involves touring schools to teach others about rowing without fully functioning oars (making do with what you have and not feeling sorry for yourself) and he writes books  with his mouth and a modified computer.  I will just compare him to a fellow in the UK recently who went to court to try to be allowed to die because he was ‘locked in’ to his body.  They said no and he died anyway of natural causes, probably heartbreak, shortly after.  Of course he was locked in and found it harder than Nick to communicate and I think his main issue was that he was not born with it.  It came as a horrible shock and he had to compare what he believed he could now do with his experience of what he used to do.  His expectations had been dashed and the gap was too big for him.  It would take a huge will and amazing attitude indeed to adjust.  Some like the Ex French Vogue Editor managed, and in the meantime I heard on recently of a device, easily and cheaply available apparently for helping people with locked in syndrome.  I can only assume it did not help the man who died and that he had explored every avenue.

Again I digress.  What a huge subject this is for me.  I am also on holiday so I do not have to be succinct.

So back to the oars.  In any situation we have oars.  What about the men on the space shuttle who told Houston about their problem and the guys on the ground went and gathered the very same oars in order to brainstorm on how they could use them to fix the problem.  Many of us reading this on a computer in effect have NASA at our disposal to help us use our oars in any situation, if only we would ask.  Not NASA and their brilliant minds and focus, of course but something equal.  We now have teachers and/or  the internet to show us how to use what we have in any situation.  How completely incredible.  I never cease to be grateful.  I would not be here otherwise for a start.    Here’s the thing though.  Do we care to find out how to use our oars best?  It takes time.    How we spend our  time defines who we are (or something similar said Oprah Winfrey which I wrote about only recently).  Next, when we are rowing do we have the resources to ask someone how best to row?  If we have an iPhone or similar we might hop onto the internet to learn quickly.  So this metaphor is changing a little!  I doubt when that proverb was written that they had any clue that this might exist; that your oars could include such a thing. Next, do you want to learn??  Are you fairly certain you know what you are doing?  Are you too afraid to ask (why won’t men ask directions?) and do you feel to ‘old’ to learn new tricks?  If we cut to the rowboat in a stormy sea, time is a factor amongst other things.

The internet has changed things so much.  Shall we change the metaphor to ‘Man must row with the oars and the knowledge about how to use them, which is now greatly expanded, that he has’?  How about ‘Man must row with the oars (which include time and the knowledge and the attitude he has to rowing) he has. Not quite as catchy.  Should there be annotation to explain that oars include his attitude, his access to knowledge, his physical abilities, his ability to engage others to get help him row that boat etc? Now this is getting silly.

But I guess what I have learned from today’s thinking out loud and learning as I go  is that we must examine the oars more closely, be open to their potential and realise our part in recognising what those ‘oars’ are and can be.  Once we realise what it actually is that we have to row with and make the most of it, we might find we can row faster, farther and  enjoy every minute!   Like Nick!