A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for.
This is one of the earliest quotes I can remember being inspired by. Like many quotes, its attribution is uncertain; when I first came across it, in a calendar I bought at the college bookstore my freshman year, it was ascribed to that perennial wit, Anoymous. Then I found out that it was said by someone really famous (undoubtedly either Voltaire or Mark Twain), and then that it was uttered by Willaim Shedd (whoever that is). Now that I check again, Wikiquote tells me it’s a quote from John Augustus Shedd, from his classic tome Salt from My Attic. Which is apparently a book so obscure that some people question its very existence.
But no matter. The quote is a good one, regardless of who said it. It’s simple, direct, and evocative. I immediately interpreted it to be a reference to matters of the heart, but of course I was young and stupid then (and, as it happens, in love with someone who didn’t return my affections). So of course I would see the romantic side of this quote.
And yet ... this quote can be interpreted so much more broadly. It can be a metaphor for the folly of playing it safe, in life in general. Perhaps you’ve seen some variation on this old chestnut:
If I had my life to live over, I would try to make more mistakes. I would relax. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I know of very few things that I would take seriously. I would be less hygienic. I would go more places. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers. I would eat more ice cream and less bran.
I would have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary troubles.
You see, I have been one of those fellows who live prudently and sanely, hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I have had my moments. But if I had it to do over again, I would have more of them—a lot more. I never go anywhere without a thermometer, a gargle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had it to do over, I would travel lighter.
If I had my life to live over, I would start barefooted a little earlier in the spring and stay that way a little later in the fall. I would play hooky more. I would shoot more paper wads at my teachers. I would have more dogs. I would keep later hours. I’d have more sweethearts.
I would fish more. I would go to more circuses. I would go to more dances. I would ride on more merry-go-rounds. I would be carefree as long as I could, or at least until I got some care—instead of having my cares in advance.
As it turns out, this was not written by the mythical 85-year-old “Nadine Stair,” nor is it an English translation of a Spanish poem by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s actually a piece from the Reader’s Digest (which makes sense, given the tenor), written by a 64-year-old named Don Herold. Again, though, it’s irrelevant who wrote it: does it ring true? Does it say something worth listening to? I think perhaps it does. I think it tells us to take the ship out of the harbor.
Here’s another, different version. When I get a movie on DVD, I often watch the “special features,” which my eldest used to call the “great theaters” (when he was much younger, of course). Watching the Great Theaters on a DVD is one of my habits that most of my family could care less about; generally they all get up and leave the room while I check out all the behind-the-scenes info on the making of the cinematic magic. Often I do this whether I particularly liked the movie or not; sometimes I even find the making-of bits (or the bloopers, or the deconstructions of the stunts and special effects) more entertaining than the movie itself.
But I digress. The point is, when I first watched Bend it Like Beckham (which I actually did enjoy), I watched the Great Theaters. All of them. The movie is about a British girl of Indian heritage, and her father is played by Anupam Kher, who’s a rather famous Bollywood actor. Throughout the Great Theaters, he kept saying this quote over and over again, using slightly different words, because he felt it summed up the spirit of the movie so well. I’m sure he was quoting someone else, but I’ll give him the credit, since he’s the one who burned it into my brain. Here’s my favorite of the several different ways he phrased it:
If you try, you risk failure. If you don’t, you ensure it.
I rather like this, because it takes the original quote and steps it up a notch. Now it’s not just a missed opportunity you’re stuck with if you don’t risk taking the ship out of the harbor. You’re actually failing by failing to move. You’ve not only gained nothing, you’ve lost everything. You think you’re staying out of the game by refusing to play, but you’re not: you’re forfeiting.
Anupam Kher gives us the short version. If you’d like it spelled out a bit more clearly for you, how about we listen to Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992:
The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching our goals. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled. It is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster not to capture your ideal. It is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace to reach for the stars and fail. It is a disgrace not to try. Failure is no sin. Low aim is a sin.
Hooks was a Baptist minister and a lawyer, so I tend to trust the man when he talks about sin.
I often say that I am a romantic, despite the fact that I’m a cynic (a dichotomy to which I should really devote its own blog post). This is one of the expressions of that outlook. I will continue to write my novel even though I’m far too old to become a famous writer (although of course Stieg Larsson is always an inspiration—hopefully I won’t need to die first, as Larsson did). I will continue to demand a work environment where I can relax and have fun even though it’s “unrealistic” to expect a business to be run that way (never mind that I myself ran a business exactly that way for 12 years). I will continue to encourage my children to follow their own dreams, even if those dreams are completely ineffectual ways to earn a living. Because, as Robert Browning tells us:
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?