The Ship as Metaphor for the Self

The authentic self comprises the unique set of our most potent and precious emotionally important ideas. We acquire the basics of these mental constructs as children when, through our behaviour, our genes interact with our physical and social environment. Their uniqueness is what makes us all natural individuals. (Yes, without even trying, if we can stay out of our own way.) Unless we make them conscious – and we can – these assorted emotionally important ideas live in the unconscious where they generate our true will. We are all born with the urge for self-realization and the capacities we want to fulfil are an integral part of the authentic self.

Square-rigged sailing vessel

Functional aspects of the authentic self may be compared to the working parts of an old-fashioned sailing ship. (Image

An old-fashioned sailboat or square-rigged ship makes a useful metaphor for illustrating the importance of our emotionally important ideas. (Or as some would say, subjectively formed guiding principles). Once we are aware of them, these ideas or principles give our “ship of self” a number of useful qualities:

A Sturdy Keel for Straight Running

The authentic self is constant. This means we can learn who we are and what we really want. Change in the emotionally important ideas that make up the self is minimal and slow. They grow and develop incrementally rather than alter abruptly. We can count on remaining who we are for the long run. This is cause for despair among self-improvers and reason for celebration among self-accepters. Self-improvers are loyal to their false personas; self-accepters are loyal to their authentic selves.

Ballast for Stability and Uprightness

When we are always being our authentic selves, we show integrity and sincerity. This does not mean we are always pleasant. It does mean our behaviour is natural and we say what we genuinely believe and are truly feeling. We present ourselves as we truly are so that others may interact with us in a real way. Being artificially pleasant and agreeing merely for the sake of getting along belongs to the politically correct with their “good,” but self-alienating and self-defeating, false personas.

Sails to Drive the Ship Forward

Just as a strong wind pushes a sailing ship across the briny deep, solid authentic will powers the human psyche and largely determines what genuinely motivates us. Motivation leads to action and, inevitably, our actions define how well or how badly our lives unfold. Thwarting your own true will while pursuing shallow ego-boosting goals is the quickest and surest way to shipwreck yourself in life. Beware the egotistical temptation of manufacturing a splendid false persona aimed at impressing others with qualities you do not actually possess and values you do not really believe in. The crippling inner conflicts and self-alienation that ensue will embroil your ship of self in a misery-inducing emotional storm. Liberate your will and you will sail smoothly ahead. Which is a fancy way of saying you should get out of – and stay out of – your own way.

A Compass to Steer By

The authentic self knows where it wants to go, and if ego will consult it, will point us in the right direction. For proper consultation to happen, ego must understand that it is not the sole decision maker in the psyche. Larger issues – life issues – are the purview of the self, as are all those decisions where our emotionally important ideas come into play. Ego gets to decide what to have for lunch or how to solve a specific problem. The self gets to decide in which direction we will go in life.

A Rudder to Steer With

Provided ego does not try to interfere, authentic will performs regular course corrections when we are angling away from the proper path of self-realization. If we do not struggle with ourselves (ego trying to get control), our will always steers us back to where we need to be. If we get lost, we have only ourselves to blame. Being lost means we are waging war on our own authentic will.

A Place to Steer Towards

Our emotionally important ideas harbour our fondest dreams and their attached feeling tones or moods. Recapturing a treasured mood can be the most potent motivator in the psyche. The will that originates in these magical ideas and moods provides impetus in life so that “steerage way” (the speed needed for a rudder to function) may be maintained. In other words, will is dynamic and keeps us moving forward. It is never passive and always has a goal in mind.

A Metaphor to Live By

Photo of Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic Little Women, undoubtedly had something like this metaphor in mind when she said, “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

4 thoughts on “The Ship as Metaphor for the Self”

  1. Lol, Thomas, anyone who advocated ‘agreeing for the sake of being pleasant’ would be dismally unassertive, and surely even some of the New Age thinking that I take such a dim view of doesn’t advocate that!

    Interestingly, a lot of people do that because they fear unpopularity; but if the choice is self respect or popularity, as I have sourly told people, I think integrity counts for more than winning a popularity contest.

    Now, where did I get those sanctimonious sentiments from? Angela Brazil, I wouldn’t be surprised…

  2. I believe you are right about the desire to avoid being unpopular, Lucinda. This is linked to the fear of competition and conflict that seems to plague so many people today. Many folks are indeed like this without showing signs of overt political correctness.

    Still, I would argue that political correctness is a socially approved way to avoid legitimate conflict without looking like that is what you are doing. For example, here in Canada, we have a case of an immigrant who wants to prevent buses from flashing “Merry Christmas” on their destination signs during the holiday season. He claims this is “discriminatory.” The PCers are all lining up to support the fellow even though they are knowingly erasing their own culture by doing so. This is what I mean when I speak of “self-alienating and self-defeating false personas.”

  3. That is an example of falling over backwards to be multicultural. I don’t see why people would even object – I’m not a Christian, for instance, and I never miss the carols from King’s on Christmas Eve.

  4. You’re right about “falling over backwards to be multicultural,” Lucinda. The objection to the buses flashing “Merry Christmas” is that they do not flash for Muslim or Jewish holidays, for example. The concept of the majority host culture doing its thing has been lost. We all have to live as if we are minorities.

    I enjoyed your reference to the King’s College Choir. My favourite Christmas recording is an old London re-issue (on CD) of the choir’s 1962 performance with Simon Preston at the organ and Sir David Willcocks conducting. Heavenly.

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