The Seaworthy Vessel

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I could feel it rising in my chest. It makes your heart pound a little harder. It reminds you you’re alive, but also how fragile it all is.

Not now.

I was in my regular Monday morning meeting surrounded by bosses and colleagues at the conference table.

Just breathe. In. Then out. Maybe they won’t notice.

It’s the feeling I’d never experienced prior to turning 30 before losing my job with a wife and baby at home. It’s the feeling I’d only ever heard about for 30 years and sort of rolled my eyes when I heard it mentioned.


I’ve never drank enough or smoked enough (and that’s saying something) to feel less in control than I do when this monster rears its head.

Just breathe. In. Then out.

People were telling jokes. I was supposed to be laughing. But nothing felt funny.

I wanted to leave.

Don’t lose it. Just breathe.

We’re Afraid Because We’re Weak

I’ve never been alone.

Because I was an only child, I’ve developed unique skills. I can hop an airplane to a strange city to attend events with no familiar faces and get along just fine. I can dine alone, sleep alone and figure out how to get where I need to be.

I’m good at meeting people, making friends and having a good time.

That’s the small stuff. I’m good at small stuff.

Despite being an only child, I always had a safety net. Until I was 18, I lived with my parents. Throughout college, I lived with my college roommate who is one of my childhood best friends. After that, I had my girlfriend who became my fiancée who became my wife.

We got a house. We got cars. We got a kid.

And then seemingly overnight: Poof. Gone.

The first thing I noticed was the silence. A lively home turned silent and cold. So I began to fear silence.

The second thing I noticed was how your insides get poisoned when the person you trust the most rejects you. If SHE won’t have me, who will? If I can’t keep the mother of my son, how will I find someone to want this dumpee with a kid? So I began to fear rejection.

The third thing I noticed was the loss of security.

There are four pillars of humanity. Mental. Physical. Spiritual. Emotional. And you need to keep all four balanced like legs on a table, otherwise you start to wobble.

You lose balance.

Because I read and write and think more than I ever have, my mind is sharper than it has ever been. I’ve always been good at honing in on one thing and excelling at it.

But I’ve taken hits elsewhere.

My motivation for physical health lied in wanting my wife to want me. Oops.

My motivation for spiritual health was rooted in my desire to be a positive influence on her and my son.

My emotional health was predominantly okay so long as the people I loved were okay. Emotional health seems to be a byproduct of getting the other three pillars balanced.

I’ve always had a net to catch me when I fell, allowing me to live courageously. To face challenges bravely.

And now the net is gone.

And now I’m afraid.

So I’ve begun to fear the fear as well.

We’re Ashamed Because We’re Afraid

Women tend to be afraid of abandonment because of how their hearts work.

Men tend to be afraid of abandonment because of how our minds work.

I am afraid.

And I am ashamed because of my failings AND because I’m afraid.

I’m not sure there are two emotions more caustic to humanity than fear and shame.

I’m afraid of failing my son.

I’m afraid of failing my parents.

I’m afraid of failing my friends.

I’m afraid of failing my co-workers.

I’m afraid of failing my God.

I’m afraid of failing myself.

In one way or another, I am failing all.

And I am ashamed.

I feel ill-equipped to keep my life afloat as it is currently structured.

Frozen in place on the tightrope, out of balance and terrified of the impact should I fall.

It’s all so fragile, this life.

Just breathe.

I looked around the conference room table.

At the other end of the table was a co-worker whose marriage will legally end tomorrow.

Next to her, a guy who has been struck by lightning.

Then a guy with a second baby due in the next few weeks.

Then next to him, a guy who is going through something so horrific that I wouldn’t dream of trading my problems for his.


My heart rate steadied.

Remember to breathe.

My smile—weak, perhaps—returned.

One way or another, my ailments are unlikely to matter five years from now. And if they won’t matter then, they shouldn’t matter now.

Everything’s going to be okay.

The lady getting divorced tomorrow wheeled her office chair over to my desk, forcing me to minimize this post you’re reading.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m kind of having a day.”

“I can tell. It’s okay. I am too.”

“When does it go away? The anger?”

She was looking for answers I don’t have. A tangible timeline. Something to look forward to.

I looked at my desk calendar.

“It’s been 14 months and I’m not there yet.”

Other people are afraid, too. I’m not the only one. She wants my help.

And then you get a little stronger because it’s easier to be strong for others.

She doesn’t know yet that there’s no way to know where she’s going.

That the rough waters are vast and difficult to navigate for all of us sailing alone. That getting to calm waters and getting our bearings is the next step. That there’s nothing to do except keep sailing toward whatever destination will one day appear on the horizon.

Your only job is to stay alive.

Memorize the night sky so even if you don’t know where you are, you always know which direction you’re going.

And then when the storms find you, and the waves pick up, and you’re afraid you’re going to die, you can look at the sky, make a wish and just hold on.

Keep breathing.

This trusty ship has carried us this far. A seaworthy vessel. Tough enough for the voyage even when we’re thrashing about.

Overcoming fear is one of life’s most-gratifying feelings. You’d think that would make it easier to embrace the scary moments. It doesn’t.

When do we stop being angry?

When do we stop being afraid?

Maybe never.

But probably someday.

Maybe we’ll find a shoreline tomorrow. Maybe we won’t.

But the waters will calm soon enough.

The stars will reemerge.

And we’ll be back on course for an uncharted destination promising adventure and endless possibility.

Today’s only mission: Stay alive.

Just breathe. In. Then out.

Mission accomplished.

29 thoughts on “The Seaworthy Vessel”

  1. I posted a photo of a Bukowski quote on my Facebook page this weekend.
    “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

    Walk tall, my friend. You got this.

    1. Quoting Bukowski! After thrashing him weeks ago. That’s got a poetic, healing sort of vibe to it, no?

      Thank you. I’m better now even though I haven’t fixed anything yet. Just one of those out-of-control moments this morning. And it passed.

      They always do.

      1. Dude. Bukowski is, and will always be, one of my literary heroes! I quote him probably more than any other writer.

        I feel like a giant knobsicle that I wrote a post taking him down.

        Glad you’re feeling better. 🙂

  2. I like the ‘just keep breathing’ part. When we’re really lost in all the stuff life throws at us, that is the one thing you can hold on to, because as my father-in-law often tells his wife, ‘It’s only temporary, gal.’ Keep breathing, and you come through.

  3. Sounds like ‘free floating anxiety’. When my first husband left the anxiety just hovered above my head and swooped down from time to time — I think you have to burn it of! I think it’s there because of the adrenaline (epinephrine). That’s why we lose weight and why diabetics go out of control when their wives leave them. It’s for ‘flight or fight’ so use it — run (jogging, I mean) or join a boxing club or get one of those things that you punch — punch-bag, that’s it!
    When the levels eventually fall, nothing will phase you — its a cliche but if it doesn’t kill you it really does make
    you stronger. Good luck!

    1. I really do believe that’s true. Just trying to push through the ups and downs I know will pass.

      I think you offered sound advice. And I really appreciate you taking a minute to do so. Thank you so much.

  4. Yes, yes, yes. Wherever we are, and whatever we do, it is often the fear that is the biggest monster. I love to read you breathing through the fear (not the fear part but the breathing part.)
    Sail on.

    1. Everybody breathes, because if they don’t they die.

      But hardly anyone “remembers” to breathe. You know… breathe… well.

      I never remember. Not until I’m out of options and it’s all I have.

      The moment passed. Sail on, indeed.

      Thanks for saying hi, Jen.

  5. Fear only comes when something is unknown but when it does come it sucks. Keep breathing Matt and keep taking those baby steps. One day you will look back and wonder what you had to be afraid of and what all the fuss was about.
    And don’t listen to the mind (or inner-critic as some call it) because it needs to be put back in its place sometimes and made to behave.
    I am in a situation now where there is fear and all of the words of my inner-critic are becoming deafening. But like you, I am remembering to breathe…. and step out into the unknown.
    Hugs dear.

    1. And hugs back to you. Thank you for your kindness. I’m so sorry you’re going through a challenging time. I’m quite sure you don’t deserve it.

      1. It was my own decision. One I made following my heart and gut however my head is telling me how stupid I have been and throwing all sorts of horrid future scenarios into my mind.
        But I thank you for your kind words Matt. Make sure you are as kind to yourself as you are to others. <3

  6. Do you ever imagine she will one day call you and say she misses you and wants you back? I do that all the time. It’s a terrible thing to think about really.

    A part of me still thinks I could do better and things would be good though I know it’s over.

    1. There was a time. Yes.

      But, to keep with the boating metaphors, that ship has sailed. I made the mistake of letting my walls come down once with her this past year, and paid the price.

      I won’t make that mistake again.

  7. Fear sucks. Anxiety sucks. I’ve been there and will go there again, I’m sure. And both are wasted emotions and wasted energy. But knowing that doesn’t prevent them from coming. Thanks for being brave enough to open your heart and share what’s going on with you every day. “It’s easier being strong for others”…. so true. I sometimes wonder why that is. Why don’t we care about ourselves enough to take care of us the way we take care of others? Just wondering out loud, ’cause this made me think. As your writing often does…

  8. Ugh, that can’t breath, feels like you might be drowning even though you’re not in water feeling; I’m all too familiar with it. For me it’s not usually rooted in fear but in a sense of being completely overwhelmed. Which I am…almost all the time.
    I look around me and my life is a mess.
    “Holy shit”, I think, “What am I doing? There’s five of them and one of me , how do I ever make this work?” (Equally split parenting time doesn’t always result in equally split parenting responsibilities, let me tell you!)
    Then, like you, I remind myself to breath. I decide what’s important, let what isn’t go (a clean house, being on time, sleep), and find a creative solution for what is. And life goes on one day at a time whether it’s easy or not…maybe all those anxiety related endorphins do help though. Who knows?

  9. Just keep reminding yourself. Your son, parents, friends and God…they love you. [Don’t know about co-workers. They might think you’re a dick, but the others definitely love you 😉 ]

    All you can do is continue to move
    forward and learn from your past. That’s all anyone can do. Blah, blah, blah…I know you know this and I know you’ll snap back. And those people you’re afraid of failing? They’re lucky to have you in their lives…no matter what.

    1. You’re always encouraging. Thank you.

      I do try to be one of the good ones. I know you do the same.

  10. Have you ever read anything by Brene Brown? She researched shame for years and talks about shame, worthiness, vulnerability and living life authentically. Some of the things you said in this post reminded me of stuff she writes/talks about. You can find her on youtube as well. Wishing you calm waters and starry nights 🙂

    1. I have not read Brene Brown. But, you’ve made me want to. I always appreciate good reading suggestions–especially on really important topics.

      Thank you for telling me.

      Hopefully I haven’t written anything that contradicts anything a well-researched expert has. 🙂

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Matt Fray

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