Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sailing and Self-reliance as Empowerment

So, how did I get involved in sailing? Only a dream really. I tell people as a kid from southern Idaho I grew up on prairie schooners, ha ha-- but that's not the case. I didn't grow up in the social class where people owned boats, and sailing lessons were completely out of the picture in terms of affordability. I bought books on sailing, used ones because they were cheap and read voraciously. I couldn't afford a sailboat, so I talked myself into building a little 12 foot skiff out of lumberyard culls, and, 6 months or so later launched it, having built sails and all, and I was pleased to discover it sailed. The first time I ever set foot in a sailboat was that boat, and the first time I ever went sailing was in that boat. It worked. I was so green that when I discovered it sailed upwind I wondered if I discovered something, it was utter magic. Got to say that sense of magic hasn't gone away.

One thing led to another as I was absolutely hooked. I also was, however, unknown to myself, a becoming a complete relic, a sailing iconoclast.. See, I started learning from sailing by reading books written in the 1920's in the pre-motor, or pre-yachting era. I figured, as the people in the books informed me, that self-reliance was everything-- that motors especially were unnecessary and if you learned how to sail, you wouldn't need one, but if you started sailing while depending on motors, you'd forever be dependent. I believed them. Since I didn't know anyone in “yachting circles” I didn't ever meet anyone to talk me out of that until later on once I had some skill under my belt-- then I was shocked to discover that I was doing something radically counter culture-- well, like something for real. Go figure. I really had no idea that the idea that one should rely on self-reliance and personal skills rather than technological aids was so crazy. I guess if you grow up in a poor community that comes natural to you as you is all you've got-- you can't buy solutions. Within the “yachting industry” the notion of doing without the newest modern aid to “navigation” or “safety” is tantamount to heresy. Facts have nothing to do with it. The statistics that confirm that the single most significant cause of fatal injuries or deaths in the sailing world (behind drinking) is engine and gear related failures, stuff you're dependent on, which then fail you and leave you hanging-- this is what kills people. Not storms, not whales, not sinking, not getting lost in the fog. But facts have nothing to do with it. It has to do with dogma, and the reality that few people will put the time and effort in to really learn the skills sailing requires, and engines and electronics provide a tidy way of covering up the fact that one's skills are actually pretty minimal. So obviously, they're popular.

But learning those skills, admittedly, can be tough work—not just physically but psychologically as well. You'll get a lot of heat from people when you try to really achieve something with an honest long term goal, especially if your efforts make theirs look silly. Especially people with 9 figure incomes. It's worth it anyway. I've got news for you, once I got to the point where I was making passages in my own 52 foot rescue cutter, no engines, a boat I had designed, built, rigged, sewed the sails for and the whole bit-- and my time was my own and I was king of my own domain, for real--I mean really, for real-- let me tell you that underway in the company of blue whales off the California coast going wherever you wanted to-- let me tell you that few people ever have the privilege of understanding the kind of “empowerment” that such an experience can give you. It never goes away. It changes you. You're different now, and always will be. But that cuts both ways.

I had a clue from this early one. I was at the dock one day, working on some project on the boat and this grand old lady stopped by. The sculling oar had caught her eye, surprising to me as few people knew what it was. “Well, Son, you're serious” she said. I don't remember her name but she grew up with a family on a sailing boat back in the 20's and 30's, and had been most everywhere at one point or another. She had plenty of stories, for sure, and good ones. As she was about to leave she said, “consider this” rather pointedly and told a story. She spoke of remembering in great detail the first time that she stood watch on the yacht on an ocean passage, at night, in the central pacific while the rest of the family slept. She was about 7 or 8 years old at the time, and said she could remember the night in compete detail, even though it might be 70 years ago. She said she knew full well what she was doing, and that her job was critically important to the safety of everyone she loved, and that her job mattered. Her role mattered. She mattered. There's that empowerment I'm talking about again. Upon finishing that she warned me “it will make you different, Jay, if you keep it up. You will do things, and think things, and know things that other people never will. And you'll find some loneliness in that. See, most people never get the courage to think or do anything. They can't, how could they?.”

Yup, she was right.

You see, my natural tendency with is blog really was to come here and blast readers with a pile of facts and figures about climate change, or resource depletion, or our seeming intractable debt issues, or all the rest-- as that's the kind of stuff I research incessantly, and it's how I think. I'm a sailor, after all, and good sailors keep eyes to weather all the time. Thinking ahead, always being a step ahead, always anticipating problems, always being prepared is the central skill of seamanship, and once learned, you just can't shake it. These things matter, especially if we're going to try to pretend to empower ourselves and our community we can't possibly do that if we don't have a good working idea of what kind of world we're empowering people to be empowered within. But you know, in thinking about it, I realized that all of you here are smart enough to have seen and read through all of that stuff, and probably wouldn't care a bit to see any more evidence of how tough the future is likely to be. Many of you will simply be turned off in an immediate knee-jerk reaction the second I would start to talk about any of it. I understand. See, without a certain level of “empowerment” such information like that isn't of any help at all. In many, if not most cases, people in our society really don't have the skills, or the sense of self-reliance, or confidence-- empowerment, right?, to really cope with what might be coming their way, and thinking about these things, even if they're critically important only produce as feeling of helplessness, anxiety, and despair and of course that's hardly helpful. See, rather than talk about the “bad” stuff, I understand what I really need to be doing is empowering people, give permission maybe, to take on a lifestyle of independence, self-reliance, and personal meaning—you don't have go sailing, of course, that was my path—but if you do you'll earn the right and develop the courage then to look at these issues squarely and adopt an empowered stance-- not one of hopelessness and fear, but one of bold heroism in the face of danger. Maybe in the same manner that a skilled captain, whom we all culturally respect, on seeing the barometer falls knows what's coming, and immediately and confidently makes preparation to ready the ship.

So while we respect in some manner the image of that Sea Captain, an embodiment of skill and experience, always looking out for the ship, always taking the conservative long term perspective, always willing to make the hard decisions-- boy, I tell you, our current society in fact couldn't be further from that ideal. Independence? Hardly, most of us are completely dependent on our jobs, careers, or checks in the mail and we're often completely beholden to where-ever the come from. That's hardly empowering. It's expected you've got to get expert advice, permission even, a lot of time for even the most mundane matters of life. That's hardly empowering. Self-reliance? Hardly, our lives are filled with the requirement of being dependent on a whole host of widgets and devices, cell-phones, computers, skype, whatever that we've no real idea how they work and have the tendency to just crap out suddenly and leave us hanging, often utterly helplessly. Even our icons of “independence” and self-reliance have largely become gutted of that. Custom motorcycles? You go now and buy a “custom motorcycle” off the shelf? Didn't guys used to build them for themselves—oh god, you need an expert now to do that for you. Oh yeah, born to be wild. . .be sure you get a safety check. . .And of course the sailing world, which I'm obviously familiar with, and how old Captain Piddlemarks can blab on incessantly about what kinds of equipment must be found aboard the properly equipped yacht. He sells that stuff after all. Geez, and of course we see where this all ends up: a society of co-dependent—not interdependent—people making a living capitalizing on the lack of empowerment people feel, making a living off the fact that people are trained to be to timid to think or do things for themselves. Boy, this does not make for a society of heroes. If anything, it makes for a society of victims-- and then we're surprised why it seems we can't possible tackle the simplest of issues, let alone--issues like climate change. We can't. We're too defendant on getting that next paycheck to pay for the services of others we need to get that next paycheck. No wonder our strategies are so shortsighted, because even if a solution might be offered that would be for the greater good of all, for the future, but that might threaten next weeks paycheck—we've immediately got to reject it. Even with our big incomes we're too impoverished to care about the future or very often each other.

This is why self-reliance is so critical to empowerment-- you, by becoming progressively less dependent upon a system, earn the right to think for yourself-- as the luxury of your independence guarantees it's something you can now afford to do. This is why I might suggest that a person who has a skill set developed enough to successfully make a go of it on a 4 figure income in fact, be well be far better equipped to provide real empowerment to people than any pep talk by some guy, though fabulous, no doubt, earning the big bucks and well spoken, but still firmly entrenched within a co-dependent system, and well rewarded for it.

So, self-reliance as a means to empowering oneself? What can one do? Well, anything one learns to do for themselves which they couldn't do before is empowering, of course. But, your ship will only be as secure as the weakest link in the anchor chain-- and it's best we focus on that link first-- something we're often very reluctant to do. We must always strive to challenge our comfort zone, not only in what we do but with the thoughts we're willing to entertain. You'll also find certain lifestyles, or professions, makes becoming self-reliance much more effective as they demand it. Others, frankly, don't, and discourage it. For example, you'd find if you took on learning real sailing, well, you'd find yourself in conditions all the time that challenges you, and the environment is always, always, trying and expanding your skill-set, your confidence, and with it, your relative empowerment. That's great. For this very reason I focus on teaching the skills of “sustainable homesteading”--as the same conditions apply. So go for it! How empowered to you want to be? Make that decision and set sail! How empowered do you need to be? You'll only discover that mid voyage, once you've learned the skills to properly read charts. But one thing leads to another, inevitably, and if one sticks with it's all but inevitable that one will get there. You will find indeed that one can become captain of one's ship, master of your fate. And please do, because I need like minded companions—fellow commanders-- who will join me in the task of building an armada to sail on the soonest tide, boldly, heroically, to confront the threat that now lies just beyond the horizon.


rbhawaii said...

This is all good "speak" or a "pep-talk" about getting off the drug of technology, and consumerism which controls our experiences day to day.
Unfortunately, like gravity, you cannot avoid it, and perhaps you'd be better off if you embraced it.
I hate spoil the concept, but we all NEED to make money, or have some income to survive, without being a burden on society. And there is no getting around it. Whether you use dollars or breadfruit it doesn't matter. You'll always have certain needs or require things in this world which you can't find or grow in your back yard.
Nutrition, healthcare, and space come to mind.
Oh sure, there are many "natural" ways to procure some of these partially, but let's get real.
If I break a leg, I'm going to have to be able to deal with it or I could die. As I become older, the risks associated with health issues will become greater each year.
So guess what folks? A civil society has an obligation to assist the elders in this arena!
The people who "can" need to "do". And, the people who "can't", need to first assess whether they "have to", and if they do, then they need to rely on someone else who "can" do it for them.
That my friends is how a civil society works.
There is no equity in work. There will always be those who work more than others, and yet receive no more than others. That's life! Deal with it.
I have never heard of ANYONE ever being hurt by helping others too much.
I know of MANY who have been hurt (though they may never realize it themselves) by a lack of volunteer-ism on their part.
We each decide where we draw the line

Anonymous said...

A "civil society" that has lost all competence to heal or feed itself -- due to an economy contingent upon the false legitimacy of certified specialists -- is corrupt and truly impoverished. One can be in denial of this -- or one can recognize it and work to establish systems less dependent upon industrial consumption, and more reliant upon community empowerment (i.e. true learning through role-modeling).