On being ... an apt analogy

By Ingrid Sapona

If you were a tree, what kind would you be? Barbara Walters once asked that in an interview and boy did she take flack for it. The snickering and ridicule that followed always seemed unfair to me. I imagine Babs was simply trying to get the interviewee (Katherine Hepburn) to reveal something about herself. For starters, the way she responded would reveal the degree to which she was self-reflective. And of course, whatever tree she mentioned might have revealed – by analogy – something about qualities she sees in herself.

I’d have a very hard time coming up with a tree that’s somehow representative of me or my life. (I could probably rule out a few types for obvious reasons – like ebony and bonsai – but my limited knowledge of the characteristics and qualities of different varieties would make the comparison meaningless.) But, there is an object that I think represents me to a tee: a sail boat.

This thought occurred to me on the last sail of the season. It was a lovely fall day: sunny and cool. The winds were light but “cats paws” on the water off in the distance (darkish patches that look kind of like wrinkles on the surface) told me there was some wind out there. I motored a ways out and hoisted the sails. I then cut the motor and pretty much came to a stop. I was in a dead patch. Clearly I should have motored out further – closer to where it looked like there might have been some wind.

I considered putting the motor back on but it would have been quite noisy. I decided, instead, to just sit there and enjoy the sunshine – and practice being patient. So, I sat there in the stillness, trying to avoid looking at the speedometer (it was only mocking me anyway). Sure enough, in a few minutes a gentle breeze started filling the sails.

Tickled that my patience was rewarded, I couldn’t help think that there was a lesson there. As I tend to do in most situations, I started out that afternoon looking ahead – seeing where wind (or opportunity) might be and naturally wanting to head directly toward it. In this case that would mean motoring toward it. But that afternoon, rather than take my usual tack (to borrow a sailing term), I intentionally tried a different way of being and to my pleasant surprise, the approach worked quite well. I couldn’t help wonder whether I might benefit by sometimes taking a wait-and-see approach in other aspects of my life too. Perhaps I should try it…

Once the boat was moving I had to pay attention to steering, which got me thinking about the job of steering one’s life. In sailing, depending on the wind direction, sometimes you can get to your destination by taking a direct route, but many times you have to take a rather indirect course to get there. In looking at the path my life has taken so far, the analogy was quite striking. Realizing the immutable truth about never being able to sail directly into the wind, maybe I should be more accepting in situations when I can’t seem to steer my life in as direct a route as I might like.

Thoughts about steering then led to thoughts about destinations. I usually have a destination (goal) in mind, but sometimes conditions that are out of my control force me to head toward somewhere completely different. Sometimes the revised destination is just a place to ride out a storm and sometimes it’s a place you end up staying for a long time. Either way, once you stop and think about where you are, you realize that the destination was less important than the strength and skills gained en route. So, rather than seeing unfulfilled goals as a failure, maybe I should take more stock in the skills and wisdom I’ve gained and know that it will come in handy somehow on the rest of this voyage called life.

The winds that afternoon were unusually inconsistent. Sometimes I found myself in a patch of dead air (when the boat speed – if you can call it that – fell to zero) and then suddenly there’d be a pocket of air that would propel me forward. This speeding up and slowing down reminded me of the way my business goes. Sometimes things are moving along quickly (or even terrifyingly fast) and other times there’s a lull. Either way, I’ve learned that all I can do is just do my best to try to steer my course and to stay afloat, and remember that the conditions are bound to change. (Of course, having sailed through some pretty nasty weather – and having lived through some downturns in the economy – I also know that sometimes conditions actually get worse before getting better – but eventually things settle down to something manageable.)

I could go on and on about ways I’m like a sail boat or about how sailing is a particularly apt analogy for my life, but that’s not what dawned on me on the boat the other day. Instead, what I realized was that maybe there’s something to be learned by looking for analogies between our actions and characteristics and those of other things (or other people). After all, it’s usually much easier to be objective about things outside our lives and selves. Looking at it that way, maybe Ms. Walters was on to something bigger than most people gave her credit for. So, what kind of tree would you be?

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona


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