Sailors & Faith

Heather Hanson

Yesterday was a difficult day. I attended my cousin’s funeral. Although I visited him in the hospital a few weeks ago and could see that he was very ill, it still came as a surprise. I suppose every death is, no matter how “prepared” we are. He was in good health just two months ago and died too young at 66.

As a graduate of the Annapolis Naval Academy and veteran of the Vietnam War, I always associate him with his military career. Both his parents, my great-aunt & uncle, are Navy veterans. They met and married in the service. He was proud of his Navy background — it was a huge part of his family and personal identity.

During the service, the Lutheran Pastor of his church recognized this life-long affiliation, as he knew my cousin well. He read a passage from the Bible, I believe it was St. Mark 4:37-40.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

The Pastor spoke about the sea’s unpredictability — one moment calm, the next moment terrifying, as in life. Sailors needed faith that God was with them at all times. My cousin was not a “fair weather” believer. He had faith not only in day-to-day life when he attended church each Sunday, but during the times his life was in danger — when he was at war and when he suffered this recent, debilitating illness.

One of my family members told him just before he passed, “We’ll take care of your mother. She will have everything she needs.” Unable to speak, he raised his hand, acknowledging that he understood and appreciated the words. He was calm, more so than in recent days. His faith told him that God would care for his mother through our family and her large group of friends.

I relate this story because I saw the power of metaphors at work. The Pastor chose his words so well. He knew that my great-aunt, sitting in front of him, needed more than just the words “have faith.” He knew that a sea analogy would honor my cousin and comfort my great-aunt. Her ability to process the words required a narrative that represented her son and resonated specifically for her, within her Lutheran faith.

Although I haven’t identified as a Lutheran in a long time, I saw today that regardless of my beliefs, the Bible holds powerful stories that can help others navigate their life experiences. Jesus spoke in parables for a reason.

We each find meaning in different stories, but they help us manage the same difficult emotions.

Psalm 107:23-30

23 Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson


The Long and Winding Road

“Every step is on the path.” –Lao Tzu

I spend a lot of time agonizing over decisions – both big and small.

Will this take me in the right direction? Does it align with my values? Am I being influenced by others?

This game of twenty questions paralyzes me. I keep waiting for that flash of insight – that jolt of knowing – so I can unequivocally say YES! This is the right decision! But unfortunately, that’s a rarity. Life is too complex. And in my case, when a spark of intuition does come, I immediately question its validity. By ripping it apart with my rational mind, I lose the larger message.

While walking in the park yesterday, I had an epiphany about my indecisiveness.

As you enter, there is a primary path that follows the Wissahickon Creek. This creek empties into the Delaware River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. As I walked, I imagined that my destination was the ocean – I was following my life path, returning to the source of everything.

The Scenic Route
It occurred to me that creeks and rivers do not follow a straight line. They meander toward the ocean. Just because the water isn’t flowing exactly eastward doesn’t mean it won’t arrive eventually. If I applied this concept to my life — I can’t expect that every decision will help me make direct progress toward my life’s purpose. As long as I’m facing the ocean, a thoughtful compromise is better than a deferred decision. Making no choice is like standing still in the water, full of tension and fighting the current. I am categorizing decisions into right and wrong, when there are no absolutes. The complexity of our world means that I must make compromises or I will never move forward.

The Element of Surprise
The creek is definitely flowing east – just not in the most efficient way. It sounds like a bad thing until you realize that efficiency doesn’t allow for beauty or the unexpected. Knowing exactly where you’re going is boring. The creek’s curves provide interest and anticipation for what’s around the corner. It also creates choice when the water splits in two directions. As long as I’m heading east, the choice isn’t life or death. No agonizing required.

Let Go
If something feels hard and scary, does it automatically mean I’m “going against the flow?” Not necessarily. Intuition is the only way to know for sure. I’d like to imagine that this sensation means I am teetering over a waterfall, holding back. It takes all my strength to avoid sliding down. I know what to do, but…it’s steep and it’s not directly east. If I’m going to take this chance, shouldn’t it catapult me like an arrow toward the ocean?

That’s how I feel right now. I’ve been grasping at slippery rocks for too long, waiting for the creek to magically shift so there is no question about its destination. But this concept gives me faith that as long as the water carries me, I’m on my way.


For a lovely video of The Beatles song (The Long & Winding Road):


Guarding Your Own Life

If you saw a loved one in danger of drowning, your immediate reaction would probably be to jump in and pull them to safety. Unfortunately, it is actually the most dangerous action to take. A panicked person has unusual strength and will actually push the rescuer under the water in an instinctive attempt to reach the surface. It is better to keep a safe distance and extend something toward them to retain leverage.

I am certainly not a lifeguard. A friend shared this tidbit of safety knowledge with me today as a metaphor for being in a relationship with someone managing depression. The idea sparked a few insights that I wanted to explore:

The Water
Individuals with mental illness were born in deeper waters than most; the depths beneath them are always there. The danger of “drowning” (falling into a deep depression) is inherent within their make-up as a human being, particularly when life circumstances or chemical changes in the brain cause rough, choppy waters.

The Drowning Person
The instinctive self-preservation of the drowning person – pushing the rescuer down in an effort to reach air – made me think about how depression changes a person’s personality and motivations at times. Mental illness is real; there are chemical imbalances and genetic predispositions. Actions that appear selfish or illogical are often manifestations of this illness in the brain. That’s not to say that choice does not exist, but these physical components of the illness tangle together, making motivations unclear. Thinking of it like this softens the pain of misunderstanding and disappointment.

The Rescuer
The advice not to jump into the water feels counterintuitive. My tendency is to dive right into the dangerous waters, thinking I can solve any problem, fix any situation. In reality, I can’t even swim and I’m not particularly strong. The panicked strength of a drowning person could quickly overpower me. Despite my enthusiasm, all I would accomplish is my own drowning, in addition to the loved one I sought to rescue. At times, I am in the water already, struggling with my own depression. How can I save someone else, when I am barely treading water?

In my own situation, I realized that because we both suffer from depression of varying degrees, I need more distance to keep myself from falling deeper into the water. It gives me more leverage which enhances my overall strength. We can’t be together, but I can offer more loving support from a safe distance than I ever could from beside him in the water.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson