Friday, January 7, 2011

Least Resistance

When did we start demonizing the path of least resistance?

I'm sure you know what I mean. In the popular mindset the "path of least resistance" is always seen as the lesser choice; the weaker choice. It's the road that cowards, losers and the ungodly take. We have this notion that we only grow through adversity and struggle, and that therefore the best options are the ones that are hard because the yield the best results. While some of this thought was good-intentioned, I find it grossly backward and misleading. I think it's time we re-evaluated the way the world really works.

The most commonly cited examples are from nature. The one you always hear in sermons, therapy, motivational seminars and the like is the bird hatching from an egg. They say that he has to struggle against that egg or his muscles will never develop. It's only by being trapped in that egg that he develops the strength to break out. We are then all told to be like that. First, let's get something out of the way: humans are not birds. The same goes for illustrations about mothers pushing them out of the nest or they'll never fly. Birds are built that way; humans aren't. Your illustration doesn't hold. If I'm pushed out of a nest, I'll plummet to my death. But beyond that, what is really going on in that egg? The bird is not fully formed yet. It is a slow, gradual process. There may be some truth in the work of the body busting out of the shell that is good for the bird. But it doesn't grow solely because there's a shell in the way. And why does the shell break? Because the bird is ultimately stronger than it. And that first crack develops where the egg has least resistance. The bird isn't struggling for the sake of it; he's forced to get out, so he looks for the path of least resistance. Funny no one ever says that unless a human fetus kicks the uterine walls it will never find its way out of the cervix. That would be ridiculous.

The more I've thought about it, the more our basic understanding is WRONG. Observing the natural world, all phenomena take the road of least resistance. Electricity flows where it isn't resisted. Water looks for any opening with least resistance. Gases are the same way. They all take the most open or weakest spot and rush out that way. Why? Because that makes sense! Everything in our world seeks to be able to move, and does so in areas of lower pressure. Sometimes these pressure levels balance out. Usually, one is stronger than the other.

Taking it back to humanity, where did we ever get the idea that more pressure meant more good result for us? In what universe does pushing against higher pressures make you more likely to succeed? It doesn't; it wearies you out. You are only able to succeed when the pressures are lowered. This is of course only relating to things that are enclosed, but I think you get my meaning. Let's look at a balloon. Too much outside air pressure, and it won't even inflate. But too much internal pressure (that is, you blow it up too far) and it will explode. This is a crude and unscientific illustration, but I think you get my meaning.

I'm not advocating a life without any pressures at all. I never said humanity thrives in a land of NO resistance. Without use, your muscles will atrophy. But nobody would advocate placing a refrigerator on someone's foot and then telling him to kick until he's strong enough to move it. The guy would struggle until he could get his foot out from under the refrigerator and hope that his leg still works. There's an old saying: "Nature abhors a vacuum." What that really means is that in the presence of empty space, the full parts rush to fill it. The pressures of the world spread so that there is no empty space. And the path they take to do this is the path of least resistance.

This nonsense of struggle seems most prevalent to me among Christians. There is what I consider heresy floating about that a good Christian life is a hard Christian life, and that when everything goes wrong, that means you are being godly. Yes, the life is not always going to be simple and easy. As Westley said in The Princess Bride, "Life is pain, higness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something." I agree. But most pain in the Christian life comes from external persecution. That is, we were warned that others would hate and despise us. Jesus however said that "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Note, he still yokes and there is still a burden; but its lightness speaks to it being less resistant than that of the world. Jesus offers ease. I'm not suggesting there are no trials, etc. But to actively tell people to essentially seek out high pressure and difficulty with the promise of growth is unnatural and dangerous. Consider the parable of the sower; was it on rocky or thorny soil that the seed best grew? That would seem to be most resistant, yes? So I should expect a stronger result? NO. It was on good soil. In the soil burdened with the pressures of the world, the seed gave up and died! All life has some pressure or struggle built into it. There is always dirt on top of our seed. But let's not lose sight of the fact that the road we take in that struggle out, is always the simplest road possible.

"There's an obvious attraction to the road of least resistance," Alanis Morissette once sang. What she said with ironic derision, I declare with conviction. It's time we as a society start living and thinking according to how things really are, and stop demonizing the path of least resistance.


  1. It took me years to discover that I was doing what I liked for a living and struggling for promotions to do things I didn't want to do was silly. So did I take the path of least resistance? I think not. When I choose my major in school by moving away from classes that actually required some effort for me, that was the 'path of least resistance' because I wasn't pursuing a goal just avoiding work. For me that is the derision in reference to the path of least resistance, it is allowing one's choices and goals to be totally molded by the world around them. I am all for the path of least resistance if it gets you to your goal, but there is no nobility in sliding down the hill because it is easy when where you should be headed is the top of the mountain.

  2. You're presuming a goal-oriented universe, which seems very American but which I'm not sure I buy. That sort of thinking says that some goal, any goal, is essential; isn't it more of a deterrent when you find you've reached a goal and it's not what you want? Haven't you doubly wasted your time?

    Also, your mountain analogy doesn't hold for me. If you are sliding down a hill it's because you are already partially up it. To slide down it is not the path of least resistance; it's doubling back. The path of least resistance would have been to avoid the mountain altogether or if you really want to climb it, take the quickest path up it. You don't slide down; you find a sherpa. However, it's no good using a mountain anyway because scaling mountains is a waste of time. What happens when you reach the top? 1) You die (like Moses). 2) You just get snow and thin air you can't breathe (and likely die. see 1). 3) You get a bird's eye view of where you really want to be going and have to go all the way back down that stupid mountain again. Only an idiot wants to scale a metaphorical mountain. I'd rather buy a map. Except there are no maps in this universe since the Powers That Be think the only worthwhile ventures come from exploration, mistakes and struggles.

  3. There is no map because nothing is totally fixed and static. The essence of life is change. Christ's burden may be light but it is still a burden. It is the path of least resistance not "no resistance." Life is the path not the destination so by definition once you climb the mountain you see the next path, small human steps trying to follow Christ's path.