Crossing Rivers

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is most well-known for the following piece of timeless wisdom: “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

Generally understood by classics wonks and included by some translators is the implication that not only is the river ever-changing, but so are you.

Not the Rubicon.

This is, of course, zen koan level of meaningless. No shit Heraclitus. I’m afraid it takes much more than vaguely profound statements and natural metaphors to impress me. I spent much of my college education in smoke filled rooms with red-eyed amateur philosophers, so my mind-blowing threshold is pretty high. Yes, the river changes, and yes, so do you, but for most values of ‘sameness’ the river and the man are the same. Especially if you just walk back and forth a few times.

That’s what I used to believe anyway. I experienced something the other day that made me reconsider my jaded stance on this piece of Greek banality. On a bleary afternoon I took the time to return to my old stomping grounds at Portland State University, where I was finalizing some business with one of my professors. I was meeting Anna, but not for an hour or so, and I found myself falling easily into old habits.

My daily routine for most of the duration of my MA program involved leaving Cramer Hall, the decrepit post-war building that the history department calls home, walking across the quad to the library and buying a coffee from the kiosk there. More or less automatically, I started doing the exact same thing. I crowded into the odoriferous press of humanity on Cramer’s stairs, deftly dodged the bright-faced non-profiteers, nodded politely to the lady at the noodle cart who served me so many hurried lunches, and entered the library.

Not pictured: chain smokers, protesters, angry socialists, etc.
Not pictured: chain smokers, protesters, mormon missionaries, etc.

Here I found that practically nothing had changed – the coffee booth was in the exact same spot, and the same unfortunate people were manning it. It was uncanny.

What was remarkable, and what inspired me to write this post, was the striking realization of how much had changed. I stood up straighter. I spoke with more confidence. I held myself differently. It was at this moment that I realized with sudden clarity that my years of faking confidence had resulted in the development of actual confidence.

In this case, I could not cross the same river twice. Objectively, very little time has passed since the last time I was at PSU, but I have passed through the crucible and come out stronger, leaving my old self behind.

So perhaps I owe an apology to old Heraclitus (and maybe to those red-eyed philosophers from college. Maybe we are made of star dust, man). There is truth in his words, and if you’re open to it, crossing that river can tell you a lot about who you’ve become.

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