I am not a sailor. I have been on a sailboat a couple times, helping (I hope) crew on the Columbia River in Wallula Gap.
While that does not make me a sailor, I did learn at least one thing beyond watching the boom and not falling in.
I learned the essential function of “tacking,” of shifting the boat’s direction back and forth as you faced the wind and made your way toward the next buoy or finish line. You can’t sail directly into forcefully moving air; you have to go at an angle, using the new set of the sail to make headway.
What a crucial metaphor for how we adapt our lives and move forward.
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Even as water is required for existing — and for boating, obviously — so too is wind. The breezes that blow are vital to sailing and to sustaining life.
Etymologists note that in Hebrew (ruah) and Greek (pneuma), and Latin (spiritus), Wind and Breath and Spirit are similar words. These three factors are mutually essential for human existence. The late physician and author, Paul Kalanithi, illustrated this interrelatedness in his memoir, When Breath Becomes Air (published posthumously in 2016).
The human spirit springs forth when God’s Spirit breathes life into being and we take our first breath — we inspire (and then cry!). Our spirits are sustained through all our days; we continue to aspire as we grow and move and fade. And our spirits are released to their Maker when we breathe our last — as we expire.
Which brings me back to tacking the sailboat on the river.
I think about the need for changing directions when, as a hospital and hospice chaplain, I work with persons and families who are facing the biggest headwinds of their lives: the awful reality of curative futility.
In the words of research psychologist Shane J. Lopez, they are realizing that “all forms of treatment have been tried and all tests point to failing health and imminent death. A pediatric palliative care physician teaches families to reinvest their hopes in a new goal: helping their child die peacefully.
When families re-goal, they take the support and energy they have devoted to keeping their child alive and redirect it to letting the child go peacefully.” (Making Hope Happen, 2013, p. 186).
Re-goal, reinvest, redirect –— these are as necessary to living in the face of life’s headwinds as tacking is to sailing.
The spirit-winds always are bringing changes, opportunities, challenges, and even threats to overturn our homemade crafts. Try as we might, even with all of our might, we cannot sail straight into the winds of suffering and dying and death.
We have to tack. We have to re-goal and reinvest and redirect. We have to “let go of some of our dreams in order to make our best possible future” (Lopez).
In the face of the headwinds of distress, let us keep on tacking, for this is how we survive and thrive as beloved, believing, hopeful people.
Timothy J. Ledbetter, DMin, BCC is an American Baptist-endorsed professional chaplain and member of Shalom United Church of Christ in Richland. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.