The great Chinese philosophers have had a wonderful and vivid image for how we should deal with times of great change. They ask us to consider the element of water and the image, in particular, of moving water.
Here's the first question they pose: What happens to moving water when it comes across an obstacle? The answer is obvious. It most often goes around the obstacle, or over it, or under it. Running water can radically change its course in order to find a way forward.
Now, let’s consider a second question. It's one that I enjoyed asking my beginning philosophy students at Notre Dame long ago: What’s stronger: water, or stone? Many of my students would just look perplexed and answer without thinking: “How can you even ask that? Surely, stone is stronger. It’s heavy and massive, hard, dense, and solid. It has real substance. And water is just soft and liquid.” Indeed, you can throw a stone into a container of water and displace the liquid instantly, loudly splashing it out. But consider the issue more deeply. Dripping water can wear down a stone. It can cut completely through a heavy, massive object. A torrent of it can roll huge boulders out of the way, or eventually smash them to bits. Because of this, many Chinese philosophers say: Be like water.
Flow toward your chosen destination with the powerful flexibility and harmony of water. This is a trait of life’s most successful people, in every sense of the word. Be flexible, adaptive, and patient in dealing with and defeating, or circumventing, any substantial obstacles that might stand in your path. And by doing this, you can be a confident force for positive action in the world.
As you set goals and move forward, you should be prepared to change in many ways, and yet remain consistently yourself, as the person you essentially are. Consistency at its best involves both flexibility and firmness. Water does what it does because it is what it is.
This powerful image can be extended. Think for a moment about how much water can change in changing circumstances. When the temperature drops enough, this substance can transform from a liquid to a solid. It can also morph from solid to liquid to steam, when someone turns up the heat. And yet, throughout these astonishing transformations, it never abandons its true nature.
The lesson in this is clear. We should change as circumstances demand, flex to overcome any obstacles in our way, even radically transform what we do and how we do it in order to take full advantage of new opportunities, but, in all things, we must also stay true to who we essentially are. We should always retain our true nature and fundamental character. And that’s fine, because we human beings are essentially flexible and resilient creatures at our core who, while we’re always at our best when we hold firmly to the best changeless ideals and principles, can creatively adjust and adapt as circumstances around us change. That is the form of consistency that counts the most.
To quote the late Kung-Fu expert and former philosophy major, Bruce Lee: "Be like water."