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MacDonald reaches into the Bible and into the experiences of godly men and women of history to discover what can be...
MacDonald reaches into the Bible and into the experiences of godly men and women of history to discover what can be done to lead a blessed life, then leads you through the steps that are necessary to develop a mature soul.
LOST AT SEA
Major-General Charles George Gordon, C.B. who at all times and everywhere gave his strength to the poor, his sympathy to the suffering, his heart to God. —Inscription in St. Paul's Cathedral, London
IN THE AUTUMN of 1992, Michael Plant, a popular American yachtsman, commenced a solo crossing of the North Atlantic Ocean from the United Stated to France. But two weeks into the voyage something went amiss, and Plant and his sailboat were lost at sea.
When Plant had prepared to sail, his friends and family had collected at the dock for an enthusiastic farewell. None had reason for anxiety. They were waving good-bye to an expert, one who had circumnavigated the globe alone more than once. The sailing community universally acknowledged Michael Plat as a yachtsman whose seafaring skills were without equal.
Plant's destination had been Les Sables-d'Olonne, France. His midsized sailboat, the Coyote, was, as they say, state of the art. The design of its hull, the materials used in its fabrication, the creature comforts: those and every other aspect of his equipment were the epitome of modern sailing lore.
Additionally, Plant had purchased a brand-new 406-megahertz emergency position-indicating radio beacon (Epirb), which was capable of transmitting a message to a satellite in the event of difficulties. Four short signal-bursts from an Epirb radio would be enough for ground stations to determine a fix on the location of the sender and to initiate an immediate rescue.
So one couldn't say that Plant didn't have everything—the best of expertise, experience, and equipment—when he unfurled his sails and put out to sea for Europe. That explains the prevailing assumption of Plant and his friends: nothing could go wrong.
But something did go wrong. Eleven days into the voyage, radio contact with Michael Plant was lost.
Initially, the radio silence raised little alarm. It was known that there were violent storms on the track of Plant's course, and everyone assumed that he was too preoccupied battling the weather to establish contact with his home base. Also, no one—ships at sea, the Coast Guard, airplanes—had reported any SOS or verifiable distress signal, and no news was perceived as good news. It was easy to anticipate that an "everything is OK" message would be forthcoming from the Coyote when the seas calmed and Plant was able to settle back into sailing routines.
But when the Coyote's radio silence persisted for several days, the confidence of friends and family waned and was replaced by growing apprehension. True, Michael Plant was known as a self-reliant man, but a continuing silence of that duration was out of character even for him. And so there came a moment when decision makers reluctantly concluded that something was amiss.
A search was launched. Airline pilots crossing the ocean were asked to listen for emergency signals; ships in the general area of Plant's course were told to be on the outlook; rescue aircraft from several nations began combing parts of the Atlantic. Days passed with no signals or sightings.
And then the news that no one had ever expected. The Coyote was found, floating upside down, by the crew of a freighter 450 miles northwest of the Azores Islands. But no sign of Plant.
Perhaps, some immediately speculated with new hope, the fact that Plant was not with the boat was a sign that he'd survived. Perhaps he was adrift in the emergency inflatable raft that had been stowed in the cabin of his boat.
But even those wishes were frustrated when the Coyote was lifted from the water to the deck of the freighter and the raft that might have saved Plant's life was found in the cabin partially inflated and obviously unused. All hopes were destroyed. The fact was that Plant was missing, and there was no clue, nor has there ever been, as to what had happened to him.
Later it was discovered that, eleven days into the voyage, ground stations in Canada and the United States had indeed picked up a distress signal from an Epirb radio. But instead of the four required signal bursts necessary to fix a location, there had been only three. Technicians had been unable to locate the source of the brief transmission and had chosen to ignore it.
Ironies did not stop there. Officials later learned that Plant had installed his new Epirb radio but had not registered its signal with the Coast Guard so that a distress code could have been recognized by computers. One can only guess that the veteran of many similar voyages was so confident of his ability to handle any situation that he treated the matter of personal safety much too casually.
Everyone in the sailing world must have been surprised that, when the Coyote was found, it was upside down in the water. Sailboats, it is said, do not capsize ... normally. They are built to take the most vigorous pounding a sea can offer. Sailors allege that a sailboat is the most natural of all sailing vessels, and it will always right itself even if a wind or wave were to momentarily push it over on its side or even upside down. So why would Michael Plant's sailboat be discovered floating in the Atlantic Ocean upside down? That answer soon became clear.
I'm not a sailor, but I discovered this much about sailboats as I read about Michael Plant's tragedy. I learned that in order for a sailboat to maintain a steady course, and in order for it not to capsize but to harness the tremendous power of the wind, there must be more weight below the waterline than there is above it. Any violation of this principle of weight distribution means disaster.
When the Coyote was built, an eight-thousand-pound weight was bolted to the keel for this very reason. That kind of ballast below the waterline assured stability. But alter that ratio (permitting more weight above the waterline than below), and the first threatening wind or wave would become a serious problem.
And that is exactly what happened! And here is a further mystery. No one knows why or how, but the eight-thousand-pound weight beneath the waterline broke away from the keel. Did the Coyote hit an underwater object? A submarine even? Some ocean debris? Was there a defect in the boatbuilding process? There are no answers, and even as this is written, the issue is being debated in the courts.
The four-ton weight was simply missing, and when that occurred, the boats stability was compromised. The first wave or wind of any magnitude became the probable deathblow. And when it came, it may have happened so fast that Michael Plant had no time to send any kind of an SOS signal.
No weight below the waterline to ensure stability. No emergency radio in operational condition. No time to take countermeasures. The result? A very capable, experienced, and much admired man lost at sea.
A married couple come to visit with me. They are both graduates of one of America's finest universities. The husband, thanks in part to the support of his wife, has pursued graduate degrees, has launched a successful career, and has attained unusual professional success. His income, they inform me, has flourished every year. Already they have acquired two lovely homes, a weekday condo in the city and a weekend home in the country. A dazzling car with an equally dazzling price tag transports them between the two. It is important to note that their success has not come easily.
They have both worked hard, and the intensity of their efforts is much greater than that of most people I have met. But now there is a crisis in the marriage because the wife has discovered some secret behaviors in her husband's life. His clandestine conduct is totally out of keeping with his professional and intellectual standing. It is not necessary for me to identify the details of what they share with me. One simply needs to say that these are not matters normally connected with someone who has achieved such remarkable success. Needless to say, the behaviors also violate the expectations and covenants of a marital and family lifestyle.
Having been confronted by his wife, the husband has been humiliated and admits that he has no adequate explanation for his actions. All he knows is that suddenly the professional success, the admiration of his colleagues, the accumulation of extraordinary wealth, and the seeming happiness of a marriage and family with children have not been enough to soothe a strange, pulsating restlessness that has lately raged within.
In a short time, everything he has worked for has suddenly become a trap. He no longer enjoys living with it, and he knows that he cannot live without it. So he has unwittingly created a private little world in which he can indulge himself. He is ashamed that he has done this, and he doesn't understand why.
After some visits with the two of them, he and I continue to meet on a weekly basis. I am not a psychologist, but I am fascinated by the story he begins to unfold in response to my questions. He speaks of a childhood in a home marked with verbally abusive parents who consistently reminded him that all bad behavior was evidence that he was useless, lazy, and a disgrace to the family name. He recalls years of school in which almost all of his grades were failures. And he recollects a path of life that was more and more marked by troublesome behavior in the streets.
Then one day in his early teen years, he recounts to me, he climbed a hill that overlooked the town in which he lived and pondered his life and its apparent misdirection. On the hilltop he experienced a blaze of insight and made a personal declaration.
He would rise above all of this mess, he told himself; he would achieve something so stunning and admirable that there would come a day when his parents and their friends would cry to be guests in his splendid home. He would share life with a beautiful wife, servants perhaps, maybe a chauffeured limousine, and membership in the finest clubs.
On the hilltop he fantasized how his parents would apologize for their abusiveness, and how they would tell him that he had made them proud. The neighbors also: people who had known this troublesome kid would speak of how they remembered him and how far he had come. They would line up to ask favors of him.
It was a remarkable dream, his hilltop vision. Some would call it a kind of conversion experience. And it offered more than enough motivational energy to get him started and to keep him going for the next twenty years through graduate school and through the difficult years of launching his career. Within a short time of that hilltop experience, grades rose from failures to "excellents." Laziness turned to industriousness, and behavior altered from intransigent to impeccable.
And the hilltop vision came true. Soon there were indeed graduate school and scholarships. Then recognition. The admiring, so very capable wife. A young adult career path marked with opportunities and connections and a subsequent level of success that exceeded even the wildest fantasies in the hilltop experience back home. Indeed, the parents and neighbors did come to praise his achievements. And just as he'd once anticipated, they spoke—usually in jest—of his earlier days and how far he'd come. And they asked for favors.
So why then this strange restlessness of heart that became the base for unexplained temptations and conduct at an age when one should know better? How can I get him to step back from life in real time and think through where this track of living has brought him? Could the sailor's parable fit here? Would it provide him with the kind of vocabulary of thought necessary to reevaluate where he is headed? I think so.
And that's why one day as we talk together I tell him the story of Michael Plant and his loss of life out on the Atlantic Ocean. At first he is mystified as to why I would have interrupted our intense conversation about his personal struggles with a tale of the sea. But then I get to the matter of the weight below the waterline. I ask him if there is any parallel between his present situation and that of Plant's boat when it lost its weight below the waterline.
He nods reflectively as he begins to perceive that he may have spent his years building up the rigging, the sails, and the mast of life. The good life: it's all there to be admired and enjoyed. But there's almost nothing below the waterline! Something deep within is empty, alone. For the first time in our conversations we have reached a point where we can begin to talk about a most mysterious dimension of life: the soul—the inner "place" that defies the best efforts of philosophers and theologians who seek a satisfying definition.
The soul, I suggest to him, is somewhere below the personal waterline. And it is easily ignored until the Atlantic (or Galilean) storms of life arise. And if there is no weight at the level of the soul, there is little to promise survival.
We go back across the years and speak again of the energy that developed out of a painful childhood and how it was diverted into the building of a career, wealth, and notoriety. And we conclude that all this frantic building—like that of a foolish man—was done above the waterline. Admirable! To be envied! But good only as long as there were no storms.
But now the storms had arisen. And in a strange way.
"I have a thought for you," I had said to my visitor one day. "I want you to remember the good-for-nothing kid who climbed the hill that day. Did you actually think that you left that scruffy kid behind when you went back down the hill with new intentions? That kid who was kicked around, who felt out of whack with everything, who was angry and hurt, who wanted to prove his worth? Did you really think you could just walk away from him?"
His answer was a positive nod of the head. Yes, he finally answered, he had thought that the unattractive, failure-driven kid could be left at the top of the hill. And hadn't he been left there after all? Hadn't someone new walked back down that hillside? Don't the career and its professional standing, the homes, the cars, and the beautiful family prove that?
"Then why are we here, twenty-five years later, talking about some very secretive and stupid behaviors?" I ask.
"I guess because in running away from the kid I once was, I've only been building above the waterline all these years."
Excerpted from The Life God Blesses by Gordon MacDonald. Copyright © 1997 Gordon MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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