Master or Captain?

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© Jeff Horner Photography

I’ve been doing a lot of flying — in airplanes — recently, and whenever I fly, I think. Flying time is great thinking time. It’s always been that way. Not only do I still find air travel as fascinating and enjoyable (for the most part) as I did as a kid, I’ve always enjoyed that particular sensation of actually leaving the Earth, of suspending regular life for a time, of reducing everything I know into tiny, manageable little patches, scrutinized as randomly as I please from a wholly renewed perspective. (Aisle seat?? No thanks.)

As a photographer I’ve been working with a lot of athletes, both baseball and physique athletes lately. Among that lofty crowd, in person and on the endlessly-tended Instagram and Facebook feeds, one finds a great deal of inspirational quotes. Whether intended to inspire themselves, inspire their followers, or just inspire a big package of good-natured “Likes,” such words are everywhere there. “Never stop, never give up.” “You are what you make yourself.” “I succeed because I am willing to do things others are not.” A big one is “Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit.” Many such truisms are indeed inspirational, and still more are intended to prove that the athlete has what it takes to succeed where others will fail. (I’ve always maintained that it’s important for one to succeed but none of one’s business if another one fails, yet that sort of measured thinking often gets lost among the shouts.) For some reason, I’ve seen one statement repeated in one form or another, across industries, across platforms: “I am the master of my own destiny!”

As a half-century man, my first impulse is to agree, and whole-heartedly. Such perspective, if truly believed and truly lived, is invaluable, hard-won, and often a lesson missed by those around us. We are fortunate to have come by that assertion honestly, through trial and tribulation, from lessons learned and failures endured. “I am the master of my own destiny!” is one of those truisms I also find to be true, but flying back to Atlanta the other day, I began to wonder, “Am I?”

I have stated often, and will again, that I’ve found my forties and now fifties to be the best possible age to have achieved, and suspect that I’ll look back on them as a golden age. All of the things that used to frighten us as young adults drop away, if we’ve been fortunate enough to have paid attention and learned along the way. If we’ve been blessed with the drive and frame of mind to take risks in life, we’ve learned that we may fail, but more than likely with an open mind and determination, we will succeed. We’ve learned that if we do fail, it never was and never will be the end of the world, and so we’ve learned to pick ourselves up, stop worrying about how many people may have seen us stumble, and move on, stronger in the rising.

Ultimately, we’ve learned that there’s nothing we can’t try, nothing too frightening or too daunting to risk trying. We’ve learned to rely on ourselves, we’ve learned to rid ourselves of the negative people and negative voices in our lives (or at least manage them), and we’ve learned that we’ll probably succeed, because we’ve learned to trust ourselves. We know that if we don’t succeed, we’ve learned to love ourselves enough to recover without collapsing into inertia, without giving in to fear and shame. “Failure Is Not An Option” makes for a great t-shirt, but I’ve never found it to be anything but empty bluster. Of course failure is an option. Not an option we seek after eagerly, but entirely possible nonetheless. It’s how we learn to deal with failure that betters us as bona fide grown-ups, I think.

Another way of saying all of this might be to say we’ve learned to navigate. We’ve learned a great deal about how to get around successfully on this once-intimidating planet. We’ve learned to retain the wonder and jettison the fear, and yet we’re young enough to keep enjoying the ride, keep steering past obstacles, keep looking forward to what’s coming next. But we’re not the master of What Comes Next.

Regardless of one’s spirituality — one’s faith — we’re also wise in having learned that quite often, if not virtually always, we’re not ever completely in control. Along our way we can’t command what’s over the horizon, can’t direct the wind, can’t always calm the ocean. Whether we learned this as young people (lucky!), through trial and error, in a twelve-step program or in whatever our temples of worship may have turned out to be, it’s just as much a blessing to have learned that, too: We’re the able captains of our own ship, but we’re not the master of the world; we’re not the masters of our own destiny.

A younger version of myself would have slapped my lips off, had he ever known I would come to this way of thinking, but it strikes me as plainly evident, and in no way as a negative. Perpetuating the vessel-on-the-ocean analogy, imagine knowing as our younger selves that we would one day learn to stay above-decks no matter what we’re enduring, learn to analyze what’s going on around us and make decisions in the blink of an eye that we can stand by, that we’ve learned to trust ourselves to be out there in the middle of the ocean no matter how far away from shore, from others. It’s just us and What’s Coming Next.

If you’ve come to a certain Faith along your own journey, that’s fine. That helps you, you’ve learned to trust it. Cleave to it and pay attention to it. Don’t dare foist it on anyone else, because the nature of your Faith is just that: Your Faith.

So no, I don’t think we’re the Masters Of Our Own Destiny. We’re the Captains Of Our Own Ship, moving onward to our destiny as wisely and as confidently as we can.

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