Ah, life. So many adjectives describe it. Magnificent, stressful, wonderful, difficult, joyous, challenging, invigorating, and exhausting are but a few words that apply to the four-letter-word “life” (and there are, indeed, some four-letter-words that can also describe it). Note that among the words just listed, “easy” is not present. In the words of the great philosopher/writer Voltaire, “Life is a shipwreck…” That it is. As human beings, we must struggle against many obstacles and challenges. From the moment of our first interaction with siblings or our first play date with friends, we have to discover and rediscover and re-rediscover how to work with others to keep our sailboats afloat. We have to protect what is ours yet share what is ours. We have to adjust our behavior according to social norms yet be true to ourselves. We have to figure out how to navigate relationships that involve power disparity. We have to defend ourselves yet avoid being aggressive.
In Losing Elizabeth, high school junior Elizabeth Carter becomes trapped in a toxic relationship and struggles to define herself and find her place in her world. We all sail often-choppy waters to find our own special place in the world. We have to learn how to sail on a sea that isn’t always smooth, that is frequently wavy and swirling. When she was a senior in high school, my daughter was engaged in the process of applying for colleges. Due to an error on the part of her high school registrar’s office, she experienced a delay in one of her applications that jeopardized her acceptance. ‘m so grateful that this happened! She had thought that the process would be smooth sailing. With this error, she learned that life’s waters aren’t always calm. She learned how to adjust her sails, to use her oars, her tools at her disposal, and keep her ship not only upright but sailing steadily on its course.
We face loss, we face accidents, and we face illness both physical and mental. Years ago, I was in a car accident in which I sustained a traumatic brain injury. I’ve lived with significant anxiety, and I experience several chronic health conditons. I have two friends that live with the pain of fibromyalgia. In the novel Leave of Absence, Oliver Graham has PTSD and major depression in the aftermath of the traumatic loss of his wife and son. In the same novel, Penelope Baker is wrestling with schizophrenia and the impact it’s had on her life. In My Life in a Nutshell: A Novel, Brian Cunningham attempts to sail his stormy sea of social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder.
For all humans, whether fictional characters or people in the real-world, squalls can hit at any time in any place. So Voltaire was correct in describing life as a shipwreck. Happily, though, he had more to say. His full statement was this: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” I love this. It contains multiple wisdoms. Sure, life can be challenging and stressful. But we have lifeboats! If one ship begins to sink, hop into a lifeboat. They exist. What supports do we have in our lives? What inner strengths do we possess to keep us sailing? In what new directions can we sail the lifeboat?
All oceans have stormy spots, but no ocean is ever stormy in its entirety, and the stormy spots are temporary. Storms blow over. So hop in the lifeboat and know you can survive. And another wisdom? Sing! Sure, you might want to scream in fear or frustration or cry out in despair or pain. Go ahead. It’s a logical reaction to life’s storms. But our vocal chords can do many things, including sing. Sing in the lifeboat. Sing in the storm (you know the song — Singing in the Rain). Sing when the storm clears. Find beauty around you and celebrate it. Find good things to do despite the storm, and do them. Singing clears the lungs, the heart, and the mind. It reminds us that the storm doesn’t have to drown us.