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The Path of Least Resistance: Which Way Now?

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Van Gogh said, “The more ill I become, the sicker I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by painting.”

I had a friend a few years ago who told me to read this “great book.” It was called The Path of Least Resistance or something. And because I trusted this friend and knew him to be well-read, well-educated, and generally quite wise, I read the book. Now, years later, I can’t comment on the book too much because after a few pages, it struck me as crap. I suppose the path of least resistance is a good idea in theory – the idea that you follow where life leads you and put up little resistance. Instead of fighting with obstacles, you simply ignore them or walk around them, which seems wise on the face of it, but I’m not sure it’s the way to be.

Another friend, also years ago, was up with me late one night, or very early in the morning, depending on how you look at it, and we were lying on the bed looking up at the ceiling. We had indulged in an elixir that had us waxing philosophical all night, and since we were both philosophy majors with an interest and minor in higher math, we tended to discuss abstract and weird things that to most would likely be incredibly boring. Nonetheless… Frank said, “So you’re in the desert, and you come to a wall, what do you do?” The idea, he tells me, is that I have to get beyond the wall. I think about this for a while, then
“What’s the texture of the wall like?”

Frank laughs. Really laughs. He says, “That is a really fucking trippy question, Sadi…” and laughs some more. He finally says, “Why?” Isn’t it obvious, I think. If I’m to get over the wall, I need to know if I can get a grip on it, so the texture is important. He looks at me and says, “Why don’t you just walk around it?” He had a good point. This, I think, is the path of least resistance. Why try and surmount an obstacle when you can simply take a different route and not deal with it at all. My assumption was that this illusory wall was like the Great Wall of China and stretched clear across the desert. There was no way to walk around it without traveling for miles out of your way. But in reality, Frank hadn’t told me how long or short the wall was. It was just a narrow wall, he imagined, and one could easily just side-step it. What this tells me is that when I see an obstacle, I look directly at the thing itself, not the surrounding terrain.

Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong place all these years. Perhaps what really counts is the stuff around things – this is the way out of a situation or obstacle. You look beyond or around it. I see arguments that have continued for years. Conversations about the same thing over and over again and all of us are bored and tired of the topic. I think maybe we should be looking at the stuff surrounding the topic and then we’d see our way clear, but I’m not so sure. I’m still not sold on this idea. This Path of Least Resistance, or in some cultures, what they call Wu Wei – which is just to let things flow.

The problem with that is that if we are so relaxed and just let things happen, we can do what seems right in the moment without much consideration for the future. So many have fallen because something seemed right at the time, and in retrospect, was life altering. The whole “tempted by the fruit of another” and then wondering what the hell it was that you found so fucking interesting in the first place.

We break bonds this way, we break promises. We are thoughtless and at the mercy of lack of judgment. How many strong bonds have been broken by a half-hearted diversion that was just something or someone to do at the time. You may have had this great thing, a relationship that was a circle that was forever unbroken and self-generating. A thing that fueled itself and grew with the years, rich and thick with memory and desire and a shared history. A thing that is pure in its way because it is genuine and real and into this thing, you had put some thought. It is devastating to see such a thing broken in a moment because it was “easy.” There is something cheap and tawdry about the whole thing. And the more I think about the whole idea of the path of least resistance, the more I am convinced that it’s the wrong path – for me anyway, which is not to say I want to spend my life fighting and smashing against things. I don’t. But to simply always take the easy road is to take the road that is the most traveled, and I think I’d rather take the road less traveled – always. If I can, I’ll cut my own path. There’s something wonderful, and sometimes, awful about that sense that you can be an explorer, be the first to head a certain way because that is the way to greatness.

It’s not that I’ll necessary be great. That much I doubt. But the chances are far greater if we take the road less traveled than follow this mythical path of least resistance, which I’m not sure exists anyway.

Think of those great men and women who have achieved greatness. Most of them did it by coming up with ideas or ways of thinking that were highly original. Things that had never been done before, or at least, had never been done in Wu wei and is another matter entirely. It means to let things simply flow over you – to not resists or waste your energy fighting what you would be unwise to fight and would lose anyway. It means to be accepting. So wu wei is the Taoist principle of finding yourself in a situation and not trying to control those things that are simply beyond your control, which is just pointless anyway because by definition, you cannot control something beyond your control. It’s a fine difference, a fine line between that path and wu wei – to clarify, the path leads you down a much frequented highway because it is safe and only this. wu wei often means that no matter what your path, there will be obstacles (more likely, in fact, on the road less traveled) that you would be unwise to spend time fighting.

So follow the road less traveled, be very wu wei about it, enjoy the wabi sabi-ness of it all and watch as you and those things and people around you change, have a half a chance at greatness, and enjoy the trip.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

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