There’s a story widely told about King Canute, the ruler of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden in the early 11th century.
Perhaps you know it already. Canute takes his throne, courtiers and officials to the ocean shore and, setting himself at the boundary of the rising tide, commands the sea to turn back. Before long, all of them are knee deep in water and, in the popular telling, Canute’s arrogance is revealed to all, leading eventually to his downfall.
But the popular myth is only one telling. In another account, Canute uses the event to show his followers that there’s a limit even to the power of kings – that there are forces in our lives which, despite our most strenuous efforts, cannot be overcome.
More often than not, we’re like the Canute of the first story. We push against life, demanding that it meet us on our terms, insisting that it unfold at our pace, commanding that it give us what we want – and damning it, raging against it when it doesn’t comply. We misunderstand our enormous power to take charge of our lives as the power to take charge of life itself.
But just like the tide, life has a way of happening regardless of our actions, regardless of our wishing that it were not the case, regardless of whether we like it. Our fighting is the root of enormous suffering and wastes so much of the precious contribution the world needs from each of us.
Canute the second calls on us to see this, and to turn into life rather than push against it – to marshal its enormous power to propel us more deeply into the world. When we give up our shrill cry of “how dare this happen to me?“, abandon the fight, and turn instead with our deepest acceptance, compassion and courage back into the stream of life as it happens, whatever that brings: this is when we’re able to harness life’s forces as our own, and when we’ve first stepped into the true power that is everyone’s heritage.