Perhaps it really is true everything we need to know we learned by first grade. The songs we sang as children, “Row Your Boat” for example, actually contained surprising wisdom. It’s a rather simple four-line song, easily dismissed:
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream!
But take a few moments to look below the surface. Within its direct injunctive language, a concise teaching about the view and practice of living well in the world is presented.
Let’s start with “Row, row, row.” This instruction points to the fact little in life is accomplished without concerted effort and mastery, as opposed to sloth, laziness and an inflated sense of self-entitlement.
“Your boat,” is next. Notice: it’s not the “other guy’s” boat. Accordingly the song advocates taking responsibility for the guidance and conduct of our own life, our own “boat.” A boat is a vessel, not unlike the vessel of body and mind. It is what each of us employs to make our journey, which supports and carries us through life.
Then, “Gently down the stream.” The word “gently” is crucial here; we are not advised to row “aggressively down the stream.” This line is about not competing, to move instead in accord with events, conditions and, of course, other boats. Moreover, we travel “down the stream” not up the stream. We best ride working with the flow, not constantly fighting against it. With gentleness, we can carefully dip our oars in life’s currents and navigate smoothly around obstacles, understanding we are coursing in the inexorable one-way stream of time.
“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,” this direct instruction is repeated four times, so its importance about joyousness is great. Being human and alive is a gift, a rare and precious opportunity we have been given. We can enjoy the warmth of the sun, the refreshing coolness of spring water, the closeness and embrace of others, our creativity, our laughter, our love. We are all in it together – find ourselves “in the same boat.” This is our destiny; we are being encouraged to celebrate and enjoy the good fortune of being.
“Life is but a dream.” Herein the profound mystery of existence is presented. “Life is” informs us what we experience has meaning, enough so we give it a name. Life is a thing we each can remember; it seems solid, tangible and real. The phrase “but a dream” presents the other side of the mystery, suggests life is not solid and tangible despite our ongoing experience of it. It points to the non-substantiality of self: our solid-seeming memories and ideas are like dreams, shadows of thought without dimension, substance or location that will fade away and disappear, like each of us, in time.
“Row Your Boat” is indeed powerful instruction, a deep wisdom teaching humbly disguised in the form of a simple ditty. We do not sing to our children, “Shove, shove, shove your boat, aggressively up the stream. Grumpily, grumpily, grumpily, grumpily, life is but a drag!”
Alas, in growing older, many of us have forgotten the very fine instruction “Row Your Boat” reveals about working gently and joyously with the world. Gratefully, it’s never too late to remember.