There is a nautical technique, used for decades by sailing experts, called tacking. It consists of making progress in a sailing vessel against countervailing winds. A good sailor who wishes to sail his vessel across a body of water, toward a distant point, and who has only his sails to power him there, knows how to tack into winds, even when blowing against him, so as to make progress toward the point at which he is aiming. Without any motor to power him, or even oars, for that matter, he can maneuver the sails of the boat in such a way that they catch the winds in their billows so as to make slow but steady progress toward his destination. This takes skill, of course, illustrating how a disadvantage can be made helpful to oneself. A zigzag course may result, but it eventually leads to where one wishes to go.
This is the art of making the most of a liability, or a disadvantage. It’s a useful skill to develop, since everyone eventually encounters an obstacle in the way of trying to do something, or achieve a goal. Without this ability, we tend to give up and leave a task unfinished, or else we resort to calling upon the help of someone more adept than we are at accomplishing the job. It is making the best of what threatened to be a bad or unpromising situation.
There are inspiring stories from history about individuals who encountered obstacles that seemed insurmountable, and yet who used whatever was at hand, even if it hardly appeared to be an advantage, in order to achieve his or her goal. There is the bible story found in the Book of Judges (7) describing the Israelite champion Gideon, fighting on behalf of his fellow Israelites against their archenemy, the Midianites. At God’s instruction, Gideon reduced the size of his fighting force, first, by 22,000 troops, then by nearly 10,000 more, till a mere 300 soldiers remained at Gideon’s side. This extraordinary shrinkage in size would seem to pose an impossible disadvantage, yet Gideon achieved victory, trusting in God’s word.
And Ludwig van Beethoven, the great German musical composer, began to grow deaf at the age of thirty-one, and yet, living for another twenty-six years, was to leave behind a repertoire of classical music that earned for him a sterling reputation. An acute sense of hearing would seem to be an indispensable condition for arranging musical scores, and yet all Beethoven had at his disposal was a memory of what melody sounded like. Yet, he won plaudits for his exquisite musical scores, composed despite his impaired hearing. He called on other assets to compensate for his liability.
And Helen Keller received international acclaim in tacking toward her life goal. At an early age she lost sight, hearing and speech, due to an illness, and yet, with her devoted teacher, Anne Sullivan, at her side, she became adroit in several languages, and even lectured worldwide, with Ann’s help. She is another example of turning what to all appearances was an insurmountable obstacle, into the springboard from which she gained international fame and stature.
These are all examples of people who took the tiller of what seemed to be very inadequate skiffs across treacherous waters that were anything but friendly and supportive, and yet reached goals that much better outfitted persons would never achieve. Of course, we can attribute this to some unseen asset or endowment gracing the lives of these remarkable achievers, without our being aware of them. Perhaps each in his or her own way is the counterpart of the skilled yachtsman knowing how to turn winds blowing against him or her, into a power-source for making progress toward a goal on the far side of a body of water.
In these cases it is difficult to locate and identify the x element that powers such “disadvantaged” people into forces to be recognized. With Gideon, of course, we know that it was the Lord God Who empowered his remarkable achievement. But is there any reason to think otherwise in the case of a Ludwig van Beethoven or a Helen Keller?
Just as one person’s junk is another person’s treasure, so one person’s liability is another person’s advantage. Is it all in the eye of the beholder? Or is it in the heart of any individual, where we know that the Spirit of God can dwell?
We are a community of laymen and laywomen who, with vowed Passionists, seek to share in the charism of St. Paul of the Cross through prayer, ongoing spiritual formation, and proclamation of the message of Christ Crucified.