Keep it on the Line

When emotional winds blow around, it’s important to stay calm, do our best, and check back for more instruction.

Years ago, when I worked on fishing boats in Alaska, it would occasionally fall to me to actually steer the boat. Our skipper thought it was a good idea for all of us to have the ability, but he and I also shared a six-hour shift, and occasionally even an old salty bastard like him needed an actual break.

On one such occasion, we were crossing the Gulf of Alaska, a leg of several six-hour shifts that consisted of aiming for a spot several hundred miles away. He had set up a GPS line that aimed right at it, so in one sense, my instruction was simple: Keep it on the line, as he put it.

With that simple instruction, off we went. But steering a flat-bottomed 87-foot boat through ocean currents, waves and wind is even more complicated than it sounds. How much do you adjust when the wind blows you off the line? How to counter-adjust when you overdo it, which you will. How to keep your course true when you basically stumble onto the line. How to keep calm when the GPS is beeping at you and, maybe, often, the skipper is screaming at you.

Sometimes I would think I was doing alright, then I would look at the path we were carving through the water, always marked with the “prop wash” behind us, and without fail, it looked like a silver snake through the dark water. Never straight.

The GPS – let’s call it the voice of reason in the forthcoming analogy – simply beeps when you go off course. It doesn’t care, it just informs. It doesn’t, for example, call you a fucking idiot when you stray off the line. It might suggest you bring it around to the west, sometime, but the skipper – we’ll call him The Hassle – will most definitely tell you something like, “Swing it around to the west and get back on the fucking line, goddammit!”

So it is in life, eh? We seek guidance, receive instructions, perceive them the best we can, and then try to keep on that line. We stray and wander and fail, of course, because we are human and not autopilots. And then something beeps at us, and we have a reaction to that. But when the Hassle yells at us, calls us a failure and dumbshit and who knows what else, we might overreact.

I don’t know about you, but my Hassle gets pretty darn loud. And I often lose faith in my ability to stay on the line – but also faith in the line itself. How do I know it’s right and won’t lead me onto rocks? Where the hell am I going? Who set this whole thing up? Why is there so much yelling and angst?

So I try to do what I did on the boat years ago. First, sort through the noise from the Hassle for something useful, like “swing west,” and ignore the rest. (We all got very good at ignoring that particular skipper’s shouting). Next, when I stray off the line, I try to get back on it, and accept both the straying and the overreaction and the beeping and the confusion as all being part of the process. If I doubt the line, I can always check it again. If (when) I doubt myself, I can take a breath, remind myself I’m doing my best to stay on the line, and then ask for help as needed.

My line currently points toward a life in Europe, supported by a growing and prosperous business which I own. None of that is anything I have ever even attempted before, so naturally I screw up all the time. Money, staff, business strategy, legal stuff, accounting stuff, insurance stuff … all new, and like the weather in Alaska, they come at you hard from every direction at once. I stray from the line. The system beeps at me. The Hassle yells. I sometimes want to give it all up. And while the spiritual self-help industrial complex tells me I should release the wheel entirely to the Great Skipper, the fact is that at this moment I am learning to steer, to take the wheel of my life, to participate in getting myself to wherever it is I am supposed to go. So I have some learning and practicing to do.

I receive directions, I try to follow them, I forgive myself when I stray, I check the line, I ask for help, I sort through the shouting, and I do my best. And though my actual path is winding, I do believe I’m on the line.