The Set of the Sails

I recently read a description by Father Paul Keenan of a story of a poet who stood on the seashore and noticed two sailboats moving in opposite directions on the water. This confused him since the breeze was blowing in only one direction, so how could the two sailboats be moving in different directions?

After considering the situation, the poet wrote this:

One shop goest east
The other west
It’s the selfsame winds that blow.
it’s the set of the sails
And not the gales
That teach us the way to go.

The poem conveys a basic but important message. Sometimes the winds will blow in a direction that is helpful (or pleasing) to us. Other times they won’t. We have two choices when faced with winds that don’t blow in an optimum direction: we can let them blow us where they will and curse them and complain about our lot. Or we can seek for a way to set our sails in a way that works with the wind to blow us in a better direction.

Now my sailing experience is pretty limited – years ago when I lived in Hong Kong I had friends that took me out on their boat now and then. I remember those experiences enough to know that setting sails in the wind is not always easy. Nonetheless, we can learn to use the wind – to work with what we’ve got rather than to let it overcome us.