The Cultural Winds, and Why Sailing Against Them Is So Much Better

By Tom Gilson Published on January 20, 2019

My family went through a serious medical crisis this week. All the siblings went home; all of us packed for a funeral. It came out better than that, thank God.

The strangest thing happened there, though: It felt like a return to sanity. It wasn’t just that things came out better than we’d feared. For four days I forgot all about the rest of the world. My attention was fully focused on family, and thank God, ours has been a close and loving one. Now that I’m back to reading the news again it feels like I’ve stepped off an island onto a rocking boat, adrift, with no compass, and no one at the helm.

I’m not exaggerating: It actually felt more normal — or at least more sane — going back home expecting a funeral than coming back to read about liberal outrage over Karen Pence being a Christian, or Google employees’ “fury” over the “homophobic” word family. (That one hit me especially hard this week.) It’s about to make me seasick.

Keeping Healthy and On Course

But why shouldn’t we all feel queasy? Everything is spinning. Every boat has been cut free of its moorings, every rudder has been removed, every navigational chart ripped to pieces, and the seas are running high.

It was my dad who taught me to sail. I never got seasick in those days, but I’ll admit coming close a few times. The worst of it was when no one was on the helm and the boat was drifting as if rudderless. The boat doesn’t just lose its heading. It bounces randomly. It feels sloppy.

Seasickness is a kind of disorientation. Your eyes and your balancing systems send you mixed signals; you’re not exactly sure which way is up. The first, best cure for it (while you’re still on the boat, of course) is to focus on a fixed point, even if it’s just the horizon. That fixed reference point straightens all those confused signals out again.

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The second best thing to do is to get your boat under control and heading in one direction. That maneuver alone can calm — or even halt — the side-to-side rocking that brings about the worst queasiness. You still have to keep track of the wind and waves, naturally; otherwise they’ll take over again, and you’ll be turning shades of green again while heading who-knows-where. Sailors set their course by the compass, not the conditions.

Still, some headings (“points of sail”) are better than others. Non-sailors may be surprised to hear that the best heading for reducing seasickness is what sailors call “close-hauled:” pointing as nearly straight into the wind and waves as the boat will go. The worst? It’s “running” with the wind and waves. You might think sailing downwind would be more comfortable; in fact it’s far rockier and sloppier-feeling than “working to windward.” (Sailors do love their language: “Gudgeon down the vang scuppers!”*) Running downwind is harder work, too, and considerably more dangerous.

Sailing Against the Cultural Winds

The analogy should be clear enough: We’ve got to sail against the cultural winds. We have no choice; those winds are blowing in the wrong direction. Drift with them, and we’re sure to land on the wrong shore. We’ve got to set our course by a true chart and compass instead.

And compasses are great; no matter the weather, they know which way is north. Likewise, God’s word is constant. It doesn’t change with the weather, and it doesn’t get rocked by the seas. It’s not just our compass, it’s our nautical chart showing us what heading to take, warning us of rocks and shoals and reefs we could founder on, telling us where to find safe harbor. By its constancy it serves as the fixed point on the horizon that keeps us oriented in the midst of sickening cultural waves.

Sailors smile a lot more heading upwind.

And there’s yet one more thing about sailing into the wind: It’s more fun. Sailing downwind can be downright dreary. Sailing into the wind is exhilarating. It may be safer, but it feels wilder. The boat “heels” (leans) to the side, you can feel the wind you’re working against, the waves bounce you just enough and overall it just feels right. Sailors smile a lot more heading upwind.

Our culture isn’t just adrift, it’s dreary, too. There’s far more freedom in following Jesus Christ than sailing in our culture’s narrow, rule-bound channels. “Don’t say this or you’re a bigot!” “Support that or you’re a homophobe!”

So yes, I find it dizzying to step off the family island, going back on the waters again. But I’ve got the same chart and compass as always. I’m rounding my boat upwind, ready to enjoy the ride with a smile. God be my guide!

* Three sailing terms that mean absolutely nothing used together that way. Boom it out all pirate-y, though, and I promise you’ll sound like an old salt.


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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