Fly fishing gives us pause to reflect and ask questions about our lives, especially during unsettling times and transitions. After all, “… it is not fly fishing if you’re not looking for answers to questions” wrote Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It, the treasured story about love and loss, the joys and frailties of being human, and the parallel lessons of fly fishing and living. But Maclean also reminds us that even the best answers remain a mystery. “At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear,” and ultimately, as he concludes the story, “I am haunted by waters.” Even more confounding, the questions themselves reveal even more and deeper questions, than easy answers. In Maclean’s words: “How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?”
If that’s the case, perhaps the more profound message is that asking the difficult questions is even more important than finding answers. It’s the asking that produces the most insightful guidance for living a meaningful life, making hard choices, and navigating change. It’s the asking and searching that generates both joy and vulnerability, and in turn, offers greater understanding, healing, and love, for others and ourselves. This is especially true as we experience significant life transitions and compose our next chapter of adulthood.
Those difficult, haunting questions that Maclean and other fly fishing writers pose are the same questions raised by many others—psychologists, sociologists, historians, philosophers, educators, journalists—who write about contemporary culture. They, too, seek a deeper understanding of the arc of life, personal and professional transitions, conflicts and contradictions, meaning and purpose, especially as we change and reimagine our goals, roles, and expectations. On and off the stream, all are raising complex questions, like the ones below, about the examined life:
- How is change both intimidating and liberating?
- Is there a new agenda or identity that demands attention?
- Is there an unlived part of my life that haunts me?
- How do I manage uncertainty?
- Why do I strive for control and perfection?
- Why is it so difficult to fail and seek help, and to help those who need it the most?
- What frightens me, and how do I avoid my fears?
- How does my past guide and obstruct my future?
- How do I reconcile faith and doubt, hope and despair, love and loss?
- Why do those I love elude me the most?
- How do I live more for others than myself?
- Where am I stuck?
The courage to ask these questions and to search for understanding will shape our personal and professional identities, relationships with others, and contributions to society. Coming to terms with these questions also will help us face life’s inevitable uncertainties and conflicts, not just as barriers, but as opportunities to adapt, grow, and learn.
If the old proverb is true, “there is more to fishing than catching fish,” then I suggest, especially as we age, that we ask the questions that reveal more. These can be found on a trout stream. If we’re lucky, and look far enough below the surface, we may even find some answers, although imperfect, and just as important, a transformed life story with greater meaning.
Steve Ehrlich is a lifelong educator and fly fisher.