Paula Coomer on Pushing the River and Learning Empathy

Noodle Expert Paula Coomer shares her thoughts about empathy and what we can learn if we stop pushing the river.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I thought about this question for some time. I thought about people like Queen Elizabeth I, Aristotle, Cleopatra. As narcissistic as it sounds, in the end I decided I would choose myself — but with a certain set of circumstances as my actual teacher, and that is, to live alone outdoors in a survival situation for a year. Not in the way of a reality television show, but something akin to what original explorers must have experienced. I believe hard times are our best instructors.

Were I to suddenly be cast in such a situation, I would very quickly learn to feed and shelter myself within the confines of a prescribed environment. I would learn to defend myself against the elements of the seasons and the idiosyncrasies of the place. I would learn the depths and shallows of which I am made. How much more is there to learn, really, than our own capabilities?

The rest of it, what others can teach us, the history of facts and legends, come encumbered by the teller's context and way of seeing. And then, who is there to tell us what to do with the knowledge? The greatest of humankind's lessons are only a record. To learn them is an act of memory — one of the most fallible aspects of a human being — and not a result of the empathy we hold for the characters in those stories. What stays with us, impacts us most deeply, is that which we experience individually and with the movement of our bodies. We can only experience empathy for the world around us if we have truly engaged with it. Empathy is what I would most want to learn. It's what we all should most want to learn.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Don't push the river. The is the title of a book by Barry Stephens, a treatise she authored on learning to navigate life by intuition rather than trying to survive a linear existence. Her approach is Zen-like and is helpful for people who are in major transition, or who, like me, tend to be in a bit too much of a hurry always. Our culture needs to slow down a bit. We need to stop expecting ourselves to be superheroes and rock stars. Don't push the river reminds me to let things evolve rather than blowing up a mountain and building a new road.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

Someplace where a culture is longstanding, more humanist, and more peaceful, which I translate to being more evolved: Iceland, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, to aboriginal groups in Australia or South America.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I have never failed academically, but I did get a C in Advanced Statistics in college, and that's always bothered me. I got the C because I didn't want to learn statistics. What I took from this experience is that sometimes we make choices based on what is more important to us versus what we have to gain. I didn't care about a course that asked me to use equations I didn't understand. I wanted to understand the equations, but that meant two other classes I didn't really care about. Could I get through a life without fully understanding statistics? It turns out I could, but I still don't like the fact that I technically wimped out on the situation. And I still get nervous when colleagues start talking about standard deviations.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I decided to leave a very good career in nursing administration with the federal government to become a poet and a writer. Of course, a truer version of that sentence would go more like this: I tried having a career in nursing, but in the end, had to admit that writing poetry and creative prose were my true calling. I did imagine the life of a writer as looking quite different from the way it actually is. The imagined picture features sun-drenched days and cups of tea at a desk in a room with dark-warm wood floors and overstuffed chairs next to stacks of books. The reality of it is that I snatch a few lines at the breakfast table — if I'm lucky — before I get in the car to make the thirty-five-mile commute to my day job, which involves teaching other people to do the very thing I long to be home doing.

Does that make me regret the choice I made? Not in the least. I still get to write book after book, even if it's only a few sentences or paragraphs at a time. Students get a pretty good bargain from my classes. I haven't survived a year in the woods alone, but I have survived twenty years of a writing life and have the published books to prove it. Nothing I love more than telling people how frightening and fabulous the journey is, how much there is to learn from it, and how these are good things because once you set out on the road, there's no going back.

Article Topics: