This I Believe, VT: Terry Ryan

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(HOST) All this week during Morning Edition, we’re hearing essays submitted by Vermonters to “This I Believe”, the national radio project exploring the principles and values that guide our lives.

Terry Ryan went to sea as a young man in search of adventure. He found it, and he also found a set of beliefs that continue to inform his life today. Here he is with his essay for “This I Believe”.

(ESSAY) I believe in going to sea, seeking challenges, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and doing things right the first time.

When I was a young man, I found myself in the Navy. Twenty-four years later, I discovered I had become a career officer. The sea had affected me, and perhaps I discovered what I now find I actually believe.

I had thought about going to sea when I was a kid, taken in by the idea after reading World War Two tales, John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles In Courage” PT 109 story, and Richard Henry Dana`s “Two Years Before the Mast”. Well, I actually read the classic comic of that, not the book. Star Trek’s nautical references and my grandfather’s World War One sea stories cemented the idea in my head. So, as I was finishing college, I thought again of going to sea.

Once at sea, I was a little surprised to find that the books had it mostly right. The sea is unforgiving, and will kill you in an unguarded moment. It is also beautiful in a way unfathomable to a landsman. It can be mind-numbingly dull, and heart-stoppingly exciting, in the course of a single day – even a single hour. And, I believe, teaches some lessons about change, responsibility, and objectivity that are perhaps not learned as well, elsewhere.

We sometimes hear the term “sea-change” in the context of some life-altering experience, or earth-shattering event. When you are at sea, it becomes second nature to expect change – even when things are at their dullest and most calm.

Responsibility is placed on mariners pretty early. Even the most junior of sailors will quickly find themselves at the wheel, or on lookout. The responsibility to do one’s own tasks, stay alert, and react quickly, is immediately present – and the consequences of not being responsible can be dire. A moment’s inattention by the helmsman of a ship can bring disaster. Such a moment happened to me, when I thoughtlessly changed course during mealtime. People got hurt and the ship was needlessly endangered. I was disciplined for my inattention, and I learned to consider shiphandling very seriously.

I believe the sea teaches you to make reasoned decisions based on dispassionate facts. Observing details of waves and weather, combining experience and science, thinking things through, and taking appropriate action are hallmarks of a competent seaman. One cannot just act on faith. Objective reality must be dealt with, through direct action. “Heaven helps those who help themselves” is a true adage at sea – those who only hope and have faith will perish, while those who think and act will survive.

Our modern lifestyles only rarely put us into situations where we are forced to think, act, and accept the outcomes of those thoughts and actions, without any “do-over” or “replay”. I believe that our lives are too short to allow such a banal existence. I believe we need to challenge ourselves, exercise our minds and bodies, and take risks. I believe that if we do not do these things, we live without meaning, and, essentially, have not lived at all.

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