What you may call a disaster could actually become the greatest gift in your life. This is what I learned when Zeehaen, an eighteen-meter steel yacht my husband and I had bought to sail the world, foundered on a sandbar while at anchor, flooding the interior when she rolled into deeper water.
After the high drama of a fight with salvagers and a tow to a slipway where the yacht twice went aground, a huge travel lift hauled Zeehaen out of the water to have the whole interior removed – including the main engine which needed a crane to lift it out.
A young man I hired to help me strip the yacht back to bare steel, tried to add some humor to my plight. He bought a large poster of Garfield looking heavenward with his arms outstretched and a caption that read, “Why me?” and blue-tacked it in the wheelhouse above the steps leading below. “Why me, indeed!” I often thought when Garfield greeted me each day with a soulful look of self-pity. Sometimes I’d add, “What have I done to deserve all this?”
A breakthrough came when I stopped asking “Why me?” and asked instead, “To what extent am I responsible for the things that have happened in my life?” The answers didn’t come immediately. I was closed to receiving them. I was closed to receiving, full stop.
Yet as I worked to strip out what was beyond use or repair, tossing numerous items onto the tray of a ute to take to the tip, I began to learn what Zeehaen’s sinking had to teach me. Just as I was doing with Zeehaen, I needed to strip out what was damaged within me so I could rebuild my life after my marriage ended.
After we bucketed out the black oily sludge from the bilges, I was dismayed to see how rust had spread like a cancerous growth. I recalled someone telling me that steel yachts more often than not rust from the inside out. On the outside they can look in perfect condition while rust spreads inside, out of sight.
During the long hours of chipping away the scaly rust, I came to understand that inside me was the ‘rust’ of self-pity and bitterness. And I needed to chip it away and treat it, and take the thoughts that created it ‘to the tip’ – along with the negative beliefs I had nurtured since childhood. I wondered then what else I would find within me that was beyond use or repair, or silently creating rust. Fortunately for me the work on the yacht was stretching me beyond my comfort zone and I was about to find out.
One day I became tense and irritable and impatiently snapped orders at workers. I was grateful when they pulled me up over that because it exposed more stuff for the tip. As I began to practice patience, I also learned to deal more diplomatically with people to achieve a win/win situation. Then when a friend commented that my life revolved around high drama, pulling people into it as if by a high-powered magnet, it caused me to ask, “What part have I played in creating these dramas?” It was hard to admit that I had too often played the role of victim.
To overcome this, I began to share what I was learning with others – especially a year seven class I was teaching at the time. I clearly remember the day I took over the class part way through the school year, and boldly stated, “I want you to make lots of mistakes.” When they looked at me as if I was nuts, I added, “You don’t learn much from getting things right all the time, but you will learn heaps when you make a mistake and correct it.”
On another occasion, during an impromptu creative drama lesson, I told them that during the time we had been together, I had caught glimpses of the beautiful person many of them had hidden within themselves. “We are all born with this beauty,” I said, “but each time we’re hurt we put a layer of protection around us and shut down our feelings. With each layer we add, it becomes more difficult to see our inner beauty. We might even begin to clank around in our armor like the knights of old. But instead of our armor restricting our physical movements, it will limit emotional growth. This armor, however, is not the real you.”
I then played gentle music and asked them to slowly form a shape with their bodies, and then gradually change to another shape and so on. I asked them to visualize casting off layers of armor like an onion skin and connect with the beautiful person who lived inside. Moving in time to the music, the children took on the appearance of flowers opening gradually in the sun. When we discussed what they had experienced, I noticed that the girls especially, gained important new insights and were eager to further explore what they had within themselves. So over the next few months, the worst class in the school became the best class I ever had.
Richard Bach wrote in Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, “You teach best what you most need to learn.” I understood, then, why I had also told this class on the first day we met that I had just as much to learn from them as they did from me. Yet at the time, I wondered why I’d said it.
After eighteen months of working on Zeehaen, tremendous healing had taken place and it felt as if we had become as one, rebuilding each other. Whenever something happened to upset me I now asked, “What do I have to learn from this?” Then answers came like gifts to change the way I thought about myself, others, and life. Not only did I gain new understanding and wisdom, but peace of mind.
For instance, when I thought about how easy it is to blame our difficulties on the inadequacies of our parents in providing sufficient love and guidance to help us through this maze called life, I was clearly able to see that my parents were themselves victims of their parents’ ineffective parenting. Who do we point the finger at when we finally realize this? Therefore the adversities I experienced during childhood became challenges to overcome and fears to face. This enabled me to develop enough inner strength to finally remove the armor that hid the real me. And then quite unexpectedly, I was forced to sell Zeehaen, my secure steel cocoon.
Initially I was distraught, but since I had resolved to turn each negative situation around, I told my teenage son that Zeehaen had taught me to pull out the weeds in my soul and plant flowers instead. He smiled warmly, gave me a hug and said, “Mum, you’re going to have a botanical garden one day.”
Zeehaen’s sinking was a gift for which I will always be grateful. By developing an attitude of gratitude for what I was learning from unhappy and difficult situations, I was able to return love for the bitterness and negativity people threw my way. This was the gift of Zeehaen.