Posted March 31, 2017 in Monthly News

What Ships Are Built For

In 1928 John A. Shedd published a collection of sayings (“Salt from My Attic”) that included the following saying, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” You may also be familiar with the saying, “Any port in a storm.” The recently recovered audio tapes from the El Faro that was lost at sea in 2015, clearly illustrate how risky the ocean can be even for experienced sailors. The Shedd quotation is often used to encourage people to take more risks and to discourage “playing it safe.” Progress occurs because people take chances, and not all chances pay off.

Our ancestors who went down to the sea in ships were willing to take extraordinary chances in the hopes of extraordinary rewards. They were, after all, in sailing vessels much smaller than either El Faro or the Titanic. Some of the rewards they were seeking were, of course, financial. Others went to sea primarily to learn more about what was “out there.” Charles Darwin, for example, wanted to learn more about the species with whom we share the planet. And he was not the only one curious about the world. The time between the early fifteenth century and the end of the eighteenth century became known as the Age of Discovery. During this time, the Europeans set sail on what became a global quest, not only to see what was “there,” but also for wealth. I am not sure why the extensive exploration of the world was dominated by the Europeans instead of the Asians, but I suspect it has something to do with the inherent differences in philosophical orientation between East and West.

To say that the different attitudes toward exploration resulted from the West having adopted Science while Mysticism dominated Eastern thought would not be fully correct. Nor would it be fully correct to say that those in the West prayed, while those in the East meditated. My guess is that those differences are, however, based on a fundamental difference in philosophical orientation. At this point, science has overtaken Asian thought to the same degree as it has Western thought. All things considered, those from the East and those from the West aren’t that different. Most of those reading this article will be more familiar with European history than with Asian history, but those histories have more similarities than differences. The Medieval period, for example, was marked by numerous wars in both Asia and Europe. Class distinctions were also similar, with strong divisions between royalty and peasants. In both East and West it took a long time before a “merchant” class emerged, forming the foundation for what is now considered the Middle Class.

Political systems were slow to evolve. In the West, we look to the Magna Carta as the beginning of the end of the absolute authority of monarchs. The poet William Blake said, For the Eye altering alters all. We gain perspective when we travel, regardless of our mode of transportation. I suspect that the saying applies to time as much as it does to space. We (including those we consider “less evolved”) are not the same people our ancestors were. Our sensibilities have changed because we know more. In general, the more you know, the less you fear. We tend to be more afraid of the unknown than we are of the known. That doesn’t mean, of course, that any of us would be glad to wrestle a grizzly bear or otherwise engage in risky behaviors. A long time ago, my parents came from California to visit me and my family one very snowy Christmas in Michigan. There was quite a bit of snow on the streets when my father and I went out to run a couple of errands. For me, driving on the snow had become relatively normal. However, I thought my father was going to jump out of his skin every time I turned a corner or came to a stop sign. Driving on snow and ice was an “unknown” for my father, so he had no way of knowing how hard it might be to turn a corner or stop.

The familiar is comfortable, whereas the new is not. The old saying is, Better the devil you know than the one you don’t. But that’s not what ships are built for. We need to remember that we are on a metaphorical ship, and our only real choice is whether we chose to set sail or simply stay in the harbor. Life will be more interesting if you choose to set sail.

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