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When We Set Out

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My father has been with me since his death, speaking to me through the things he did, the things he built, the things he loved. So when someone recently asked, "Which should we listen to, our soul or our will," I suddenly remembered my father teaching me how to steer the thirty-foot sailboat he built when I was a boy. He would say, "It's the sail that follows the wind and the rudder that follows the sail." The sail by its nature will catch the wind and lean into it. The rudder is for steering once you've set sail.

In the relationship between our soul and our will, our soul is like a sail. Once hoisted in the open, our soul is filled by the wind of Spirit and that wind establishes our course and direction. Our will is our rudder. Its job is to follow where the soul filled with Spirit leads us. Our soul shows us where to go, while our will helps to steer our way there. The times I grow stubborn or confused or lost are the times I lean on my will to make things happen. But forcing things to happen is not its job, though my will wants to take over. The times I feel at one with everything around me, the times I feel certain of my path, are when the sail of my soul is full and I'm being carried toward a vision greater than myself; feeling most alive along the way.

I sent this memory of our father to my brother Howard who wrote back, "I remember him on the low side of the boat with his back against the stays looking for a break in the jib with his foot on the tiller. He loved watching the water and foam run up on deck through the scuppers. He'd smile, take a deep breath of that salt air and say, 'We're really scudding along now.' It was the happiest of times for him, taking something he built and seeing it tuned to perfection, rushing down the bay. He loved the rocking of a heavy boat in a slight swell reaching to windward on a blue-sky day with a glint of sun on the water, the masts creaking, the wind slapping through the rigging. I wish I could take him back and have him live in that moment forever. And I would gladly go there with him."

In that moment on the sea, my father was living once for all time, entering that moment so completely, he was feeling all of life rushing through him. The sensation of feeling all of time and all of life in any given moment is the sensation of joy. We all want to live in these moments forever. But we can't. Yet my father's love of the sea affirms that if we lift our heads, life will touch us. Even a taste of aliveness in a moment can fill, sustain, and refresh us as we make it through the daily grind of doubt and confusion.

A Question to Walk With: Tell the story of someone you admire and how they live their life fully.

This month, Atria is publishing my new book, The One Life We're Given. To make the most of being here, we're required to learn when to try and when to let go. This is our initiation into grace. The gift and practice of being human centers on the effort to restore what matters and, when in trouble, to make good use of our heart. No one quite knows how to do this, but learn it we must. There is no other way. By fully living the one life we're given, we're led to the wisdom that waits in our heart. "When We Set Out" is an excerpt from the book.

For more poetry for the soul, click here.

For more by Mark Nepo, click here.