The most fundamental conversation we can have, the starting point for all seekers is a conversation about reality itself. This subject is bigger and more universal than any particular church or worldview. The human condition is the one thing all people share and accurately framing that fundamental starting point for all people is the subject I wish to address.
I love sailing. I love the adventure of being on the ocean, and facing the uncertainty of the conditions. I love surfing for the same reasons. I remember when my older brother and I first contemplated sailing on the ocean with our families. We decided to get certified and take actual ocean sailing classes because we both knew (and know) that the ocean is no joke. Mistakes or too much bravado on the ocean can be deadly. In the last decade or so, I personally have pulled 3 people panicking from the ocean caught in rip tides. For all its beauty the ocean is also something that commands immense respect. Having firsthand experienced the power and fury of the ocean as well as it’s vast loneliness I have learned to take it very seriously.
The human condition in its raw form is very much like the ocean, it’s vast, it can be beautiful, it can be terrifying, it can be lonely, it changes without warning, and it demands to be taken seriously. This is the fundamental nature of reality. When we strip away all our narratives man is adrift in a sea without any definite purpose or direction in an environment that can be both beautiful and awful. Since the dawn of time people have constructed boats (usually in the form of narratives), for this metaphorical ocean. These boats were something to grab onto, something to keep you from drowning, especially amid storms. These boats have never been perfect. Some have been nothing more than an assemblage of driftwood. But at least they give you something to keep your head above the water.
This is what faith is. It is when you grab onto one of these boats (or chunks of driftwood) trusting in it. You put your faith in something because the alternative leaves you adrift without recourse. It could be a simple faith in “I should do what I feel is right” or it could be a complex faith tradition. Those who abandon faith (the boats), are those who say the water is not so bad, they enjoy swimming in the calm water, but these people don’t understand the ocean, they don’t understand its power, beauty and danger. Swim and enjoy the calm because eventually we all drown is their motto. However you sometimes will see a swimmer clinging to a little driftwood or the the side of a boat when storms come, because even swimmers deep down don’t want to tossed about and drown. They come to realize the only way to prevent it is holding onto something (at least temporarily).
But there is a deeper question, is there any destination over the horizon. Is there somewhere to go? Are we to just drift until we eventually drown? Is life nothing more than a short swim in an ocean that may be calm and beautiful or stormy and terrifying with fate at the helm? Those adrift sometimes rightly ask, “why am I so lucky to enjoy calm beautiful seas” or “why are others so unlucky as to only endure a short miserable drowning in an unforgiving storm”? If you don’t recognize fully the perverse injustice of the human condition then you either are naive or heartless. The fundamental reality is the ocean in all its desolation, injustice and vast drifting emptiness where chance alone rules your well being or suffering. When you consider this plight you understand why many believe mankind is in need of rescue. But is there any hope? Anything solid to build a life on?
As we all drift there are many who claim there is land over the horizon. That we can get there and that we can build a new life on the solid land. There are ships constructed, there are courses plotted and we see those who sail beyond the horizon not knowing where they end up. Are we going to get in a ship? Which ship? Which direction? To what end? Should we stop worrying and taking on the stress and physical demands of sailing? Should we just jump in the water, swim and hope the storms don’t come and drown us before we want them to. After all, aren’t all these boats just wishful thinking, a doomed endeavor that turns existence into a miserable sailors toil before dying in pursuit of land that does not exist?
Jordan Peterson has gained international stardom by rightly pointing out that our civilizations, our human progress, and that which humans find of worth has been built on people adopting responsibility. Essentially what Peterson is saying is that a meaningful life can only be built by people taking on the task of building a boat and setting sail. Because in sailing, in exploring, in the seeking of land we find purpose and hope, we find happiness through meaning. Some days we see birds that give us signs of land, other times we feel alone as we try and patch a hole in our boat, but sail on we must.
As we look around we see many boats proposing different destinations. The boats are built differently, the crews organized in different fashion. Some are big, some are small, some have comfy chairs, some do not, but all the boats are trying to go somewhere, trying to find solid land. “Join our crew is the call” as each boat’s virtues and course is extolled as the surest smoothest way to the solid land. But there is another group, a group in the water swimming around laughing at the people in the boats. Those in the boats hear them, “Come in and enjoy the water”, “That boat will surely sink in the first storm”, “You are wasting your time and the time of others toiling on those silly boats”. Still occasionally some in the water feel a tinge of fear as they see clouds approach, they even feel envious of how these boats at least provide structure and a voyage to take on. Some even consider building a boat of their own but worry about having to keep their boat from being mocked and attacked by swimmers. Swimmers don’t just mock the boats, they take great pleasure in trying to sink them.
“Those boats are dangerous, the people in them will suffer a miserable journey” replies the swimmer, “better to sink the ships so we all can drift around together”. The swimmer is so naive, so ignorant of the nature of the ocean. He ignores the fact that the greatest suffering is not found in a sailors toil toward a worthy goal, but a life adrift in the void. Perhaps we should also consider that boats are hard to build, they are hard to sail. It’s much easier to point out the leaks in other people’s boats, it’s much harder to build a seaworthy craft that can endure the onslaught of storms, attacks from other boats and the constant barrage of swimmers trying to pry loose any planks they can. And what of those who spend their time sinking the other boats around them. Are they any better than swimmers? Why not convince people to jump into your boat? Why cast them into the water where they may drown? Just because you sink their ship does not mean they will join your crew.
So who are you? Who are the people around you? Are they ship builders or ship destroyers? It’s one thing to be trying to build a boat and calling others to join you on a worthwhile journey in a more secure and seaworthy craft. It’s another thing entirely to be a swimmer, someone who offers nothing but a life adrift in the meaningless cruel void and who takes perverse pleasure in pulling others into the water.
Is there solid land somewhere? No one knows for sure, but those of faith are those who dare to believe there is! Is sailing worth it? One of the great truths of life is that happiness is found in meaning, not comfort, and meaning is only found in building a seaworthy craft, plotting a course and taking on the sailors toil through storms and sunshine toward a worthy destination. One of the sad realities of life is when you come to realize that we are on an ocean. We are all in this together. We may not agree on the best direction to sail. We may not be able to sail together. But please let’s spend our time building better and better boats and inviting others to join us in the voyage we are taking instead of spending our time pulling others into the frigid waters of an unrelenting ocean.