We’re All In The Same Boat, artist Roy Thomas (1984)
by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
Yes, we’re all in it together, in the boat.
But we each have to learn how to paddle. Our selves.
This blog tries to identify the paradox and dig into the truth of each side of it.
The Earth: Shared Home
Wherever we live on this Planet Earth, we deal with the reality of being bound to it. We draw in the same layer of oxygen. Gravity holds us to the ground. We’re mostly made of water, and all the waters of earth interconnect. We now know about the importance to living beings of healing the parts of the earth that we’ve harmed. We’ve learned that our collective actions have impacts and that our personal well-being is affected by the ill health of our land.
Yet beyond the physical realities of sharing a planet with billions of other people, we share being members of the same species. We each have to deal with maintaining our own bodily health. We’re learning we must care for our brains, by avoiding injury but also by respecting the impact of stresses and deprivations as we deal with living. We’re learning how to sharpen the use of the brain. In part of that organ is a responsive lobe that stirs basic emotions, fear being fundamental. Fear triggers survival responses, but handling fear and anger must be learned. So with much the same basic equipment, all humans face the possibilities of tragedy, pain, and sorrow as well as friendship, laughter, and love.
We have so much in common, but differing circumstances form us, with such various results. Physical and intellectual attributes, the quality of nurturing received, the available teaching, connections we made or failed to make with other humans, stable or erratic care, resources available to us including food: along these critical dimensions no one grows up in the exact same way as another.
And so while we’re in a universal boat, sailing together on the same earth, we each have to acquire the means of navigating our personal circumstances. Together, yet necessarily apart.
A Fundamental Paradox
This paradox has always existed. Not always recognized, nonetheless we are part of a shared attachment to the rest of the world. Yet, we are entirely individual in our particular foothold on the ground on which we stand.
How do we live with this paradox? Do we emphasize our connection? Do we emphasize our individuality? Do we seek to find a way of living that balances the two?
First Nations Wisdom
The belief system of the First Nations in Canada grew – as did all cultures – out of the experience of its members, daily and through the seasons and the years. Each young man and woman had to meet the challenges of growing into adulthood. There were rituals controlled by the elders, requiring courage and stamina, that brought them into maturity. At the same time, each was part of a society – a clan – that held a collective vision of how they were meant to live – sharing and taking care of one another and the nature that supported them.
Fine artists from the First Nations in Canada represent this duality to us, drawing from the world view of the tribe. “We’re All in the Same Boat”, painted by Roy Thomas, draws from his Ahnisnabae culture absorbed from his grandparents in the Thunder Bay area, to represent a universal truth.
Joseph Boyden quotes and then comments on Roy Thomas’ view:
“ ‘When I use my paintbrush I understand that I am not the only one doing the painting, even though my name goes on the finished work.’ In these few words, Roy captures the spirit of the Ahnisnabae. ..We are all inter-related. We are all connected. We are all one family together in the same boat.” (See ref. below)
An Encounter With the Communal Vision
Early on in opening our Church to the outreach that is now known as Out of the Cold, our mixed group of volunteers had to learn how to interact with groups of distinct Others, acting in ways not familiar to us. Specifically on one of the first nights, how First Nations men preferred to deal with bedding down in a strange location. We were trying to maintain order as 90 or more people prepared to sleep on mattresses in the Parish Hall, about twelve Ahnisnabae men among them. After dinner and some efforts at socializing, it was time to get ready for sleep. The native men did not want their mattresses to be placed in dormitory-like lines on the floor. The placed their mattresses in a star-like formation, heads close together in the centre of a circle, feet placed at the outer rim. This took space away from the total sleeping space available so we had to request that First Nations men accept the efficiency of sleeping in rows. What a shame! They knew the comfort of maintaining close connection in a distinctive way. They didn’t make a fuss about our requirements, but they were joking in their own tongue over the next hour – I suspected about our stiff ways.
Again and again we saw native men and women drawing comfort from their strong ties, even in the face of death. Two brothers in their 30’s, sharing several years of living on the streets of Toronto, were separated when the older one, Nick, died from illness and exposure. Brother Billy, along with Thomas who was part of their city cadre, continued to join Out of the Cold for dinner, but left right after. Billy telling me that for the rest of the winter they would be sleeping outside to honour his brother’s death. It seemed self-defeating – why risk repeating Nick’s fate? But over time they could make clear to us that in this way they could they meet Nick’s spirit, re-entering what they had shared with him for weeks and years, and be able to let him go (this being my understanding of what they expressed to me). For a full year, Billy with Thomas continued his vigil. At the end of that time, he was able to find housing and was willing to accept the opportunity. But he had been true to Nick.
Silly superstition? I have no judgment about it, but do respect that for Billy, his connection to his brother required this extended and uncomfortable vigil.
The Tasks We Face
I speak as a product of both the culture I’ve grown up within (Canadian, British, well-read parents, lower middle class income, education highly valued) and as a person who has spent years trying to get honest about who I am.
The point for me, relative to the question of us being in the same boat, is that there are many ways of honouring our connection to each other. I know for sure that how we live out that connection will vary greatly between cultures. But we have to learn how best to do it.
At the same time, we have to develop a strong sense of who we are individually, in order to deal with what life will throw at us. Our cultures have a big hand in shaping us, but getting beyond what our culture wants us to believe about ourselves requires effort and luck. And sometimes we have to do that, if we want to stretch out and fly on our own, and maybe come back to help build a better boat!
Why Is This Important?
This is so pertinent now, as we’re struggling with stereotypes about the people from faraway lands and religions who are choosing to come and live as neighbours in our communities. We have to try to get this right.
I’m suggesting one route. Two kinds of simultaneous awareness are necessary and each can be developed: (1) recognizing and living as if we share our world with a variety of other people, while (2) developing a strong sense of our separate selves. Two tough tasks.
Recognizing our personal boundaries (the lines we draw around ourselves, to enclose people close to us and keep out those we fear) is one step. How does that work? And how do we open up to those who are different from ourselves – learning to avoid the FEAR response and to develop a reasonable openness to those embedded in other cultures? I’ll be tackling the necessary re-jigging of my own perceptions in the next several blogs, assuming that many of you are like me.
It’s too late to just say they should all become more like us. We all have to become new beings.
Meanwhile, please add any comments you may have.