Why Are Rivers So Comforting?

There is an eastern and a western philosphy of why rivers are a metaphor for life and the life that goes on after death.


In books, movies, songs, and even in ordinary, everyday life, there’s nothing like a river to put the confusions of existence in perspective – to remind you than there are larger and more important things going on in the universe than whatever’s preoccupying you at the moment.

Any historian will tell you that human beings have favored river sites for the building of their dwellings since the Stone Age. There are important economic and social explanations for why this is so (rivers are good places to live for a lot of reasons), but the real reason why people like to live by rivers isn’t economical or sociological at all, but philosophical: Living by a river helps remind you of what life is really all about.

Here, however, things get a little complicated, because it turns out that there are not one but two basic answers that rivers provide to this question.

The first one – what one could call the Eastern Answer – is exemplified by this passage from "Siddhartha," Herman Hesse’s famous novel about the life of the Buddha.

“He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky blue reflected in them… He saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new.”


Because rivers never stop moving and because they eventually overwhelm anything that stands in their way, they are symbols

par excellence

of the transience and fragility of life – of the fact than nothing down here on earth is ever totally rock solid, ever totally safe from change and destruction. Change alone, say the advocates of the Eastern Answer, is all that ultimately endures.

If this doesn’t sound all that comforting to you, it probably means that you’re a believer in the other answer to the conundrum of life that rivers provide: the Western Answer. According to this one, rivers are symbols not only of endless change but also of endurance: of the fact that though nothing seems to endure or stay the same for long down here on earth, something really does abide all the same. As more than one Gospel song points out, rivers may flow forever, but they all flow to a definite place: the sea.

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Ptolemy Tompkins
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