Naming rivers doesn’t change the flow

Have you ever watched rain running down a window on a rainy day? Droplets merge into rivulets, they twist and stream around. Sometimes two rivulets come together, their flows merge and become a larger rivulet to the bottom of the window.

Have you ever seen a place where two rivers run together? Water flows off the land when it rains and into channels and then together and together and together and then eventually into the oceans. And at some places, a couple of those channels are both big enough that we call it two rivers running together.

For almost every single river on the planet, Humans have traced from the oceans up each river to each of those merging places, and at each Y-shape they decided one fork is the “real” river, which gets to keep the name. And the other one is a separate river, which gets called a “tributary”, and never gets to see the ocean.

This is reality: Water flows over the earth and through a vast network of merging channels into the oceans.

But humans are so obsessed with forcing nature into categories that they have gone over the whole planet and at every merging of two rivers they decided which one is to blame for the output river, and which one just ends there.

OK, I’ll grant this much: practically speaking, you have to call each river something, and this system is probably the best we could do for coming up with what to call them. But there’s a real loss if you forget that it’s all just water. The rivers are what they are; but if you forget something, then that simply means you’ve failed to understand nature very well.

You’re probably reading this as a spiritual metaphor or a philosophical musing, or some such thing. But I have a Ph.D. in psychology, not either of those. I’m writing this to point out that the way ordinary human minds work, we have a strong bias towards forgetting that everything flows together. When something happens, we want to know who is to blame and who was an innocent victim. We want to know who wins and who loses. We want to know what’s right and what’s wrong, who is good and who is evil. We want to know these things partly because we want to be saved from the anxiety that comes from not having neat clean answers; the anxiety that comes from not being able to classify, name, and control everything that happens to us.

Some people more so than others, so maybe you’re reading this and it doesn’t resonate with you… in which case, consider yourself lucky!

Remember that just like the names of the rivers are made up, so our names for any causal relationships are made up. Causal relationships are much less limited than our names for them. When we blame someone else for something that happens, then we give ourself the name of “tributary” and say that our role ended there. And when we blame ourselves, we cut off the others too. And neither of those is completely true. Yes, it’s practically useful to say that it goes one way or the other in the cases where it’s clear-cut, but you’re always losing information when you do that.



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