Launching my boat marked was a major accomplishment and proved—to myself and others—that I had the competence and sheer stubborn determination to see a project through.
However, building was only the first step. As I have said time and again, the dream of building a sailboat was, at its heart, driven by the fantasy of escape. The animating force was a desire to glide away–silently, competently, self-sufficiently–from my problems and find a life of happiness and contentment. It was a very powerful goal and it kept me motivated for three long years while I cut wood, glued boards, sanded epoxy, and puzzled over an endless procession of technical problems.
Of course, I would come back home after completing my adventure; I never wanted to run away from my family. But a cathartic dream of escape fueled all of my labors.
However, once the boat was completed and, especially, once it was sailed, I was forced to examine this fantasy and, over the past year, I came to the inevitable conclusion that my boat is just too small. I don’t mean that it’s physically too small; I’m not talking about its ability to withstand a journey or survive wind and waves. Instead, I am talking about the ability of the boat to hold all my dreams and to solve all of my problems. Against this expectation, my boat—any boat—is not up to the task. Sailing away, while exciting to think about, could not offer the solutions to problems that triggered the whole enterprise.
But—and here’s a very important point—I decided that this is ok. As I roamed around Pennsylvania’s Lake Nockamixon, searching for wind, trimming the sails, cracking jokes with my teenage kids, anchoring, and plotting a course for home at the end of the day—I decided that the happiness I felt for those few hours was enough. More than enough, really. Although tame and brief, these excursions offered me the kind of contentment that I thought would only come through a grand and dramatic gesture.
In fact, I began to articulate a philosophy of life around the joy I felt during these hours. Happiness is not a goal to be won, I mused, but an activity to be experienced. It is not found in a distant and, probably, nonexistent port, but in all that I have done so far: dreaming, planning, building and—now—sailing on nearby lakes. These are the experiences to that make hours pass like minutes and help me feel better about the world in general.
Of course, I have not solved all my problems. I’m still Paul, with all of my demons. But I’m no longer looking for a grand escape from my life. A meaningful, centered life can simply be a procession of meaningful experiences. It’s true that many of these experiences are fleeting, but they are all, collectively, the heart and soul of our equally fleeting lives. And while I make no claims to a universal truth, I agree with Camus, who writes in the closing lines of The Myth of Sisyphus that “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
This is all good news in my opinion. Although I have yet to sail away from my homeport, I have already achieved my goals. I “sailed away” every time I spent a day in the garage building my boat and I continue to sail away every time I steal a few hours from my day for a spin around the lake. In many ways, I overestimated the importance of reaching the summit, but underestimated the satisfaction of pushing my rock.
But what about my grand plan to sail to distant places? It’s alive and well, but for different reasons. I now view it as the next challenge, not as a dramatic conclusion to this little boat building drama. Increasingly, I see sailing away as the ongoing procession of adventures that will occur as build my skills as a sailor and explore new places. It is not one journey, but many.
Launching and learning to sail around a midsized lake turned out to be the first goal. Building confidence at the tiller turned out to be the first challenge. But now I am ready to move on and, as it turns out, new opportunities are emerging. That’s what I’ll talk about in my next entry.