Health & Spirit

Spiritual Life: Keep tacking in headwinds of distress

Timothy J. Ledbetter, Tri-City Herald on

Published in Religious News

I am not a sailor. I have been on a sailboat a couple times, helping (I hope) crew on the Columbia River in Wallula Gap, Washington.

While that does not make me a sailor, I did learn at least one thing beyond watching the boom and not falling in.

I learned the essential function of "tacking," of shifting the boat's direction back and forth as you faced the wind and made your way toward the next buoy or finish line. You can't sail directly into forcefully moving air; you have to go at an angle, using the new set of the sail to make headway.

What a crucial metaphor for how we adapt our lives and move forward.

Even as water is required for existing -- and for boating, obviously -- so too is wind. The breezes that blow are vital to sailing and to sustaining life.

Etymologists note that in Hebrew (ruah) and Greek (pneuma), and Latin (spiritus), Wind and Breath and Spirit are similar words. These three factors are mutually essential for human existence. The late physician and author, Paul Kalanithi, illustrated this interrelatedness in his memoir, "When Breath Becomes Air" (published posthumously in 2016).

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The human spirit springs forth when God's Spirit breathes life into being and we take our first breath -- we inspire (and then cry!). Our spirits are sustained through all our days; we continue to aspire as we grow and move and fade. And our spirits are released to their Maker when we breathe our last -- as we expire.

Which brings me back to tacking the sailboat on the river.

I think about the need for changing directions when, as a hospital and hospice chaplain, I work with persons and families who are facing the biggest headwinds of their lives: the awful reality of curative futility.

In the words of research psychologist Shane J. Lopez, they are realizing that "all forms of treatment have been tried and all tests point to failing health and imminent death. A pediatric palliative care physician teaches families to reinvest their hopes in a new goal: helping their child die peacefully.


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