We must free ourselves

A sailboat off the coast of Barbados, March 2010

A sailboat off the coast of Barbados, March 2010

“We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest.  We must learn to sail in high winds.” Aristotle Onassis

Whatever else might be said of Aristotle Onassis, he certainly learned to make the most of adverse circumstances.  His family’s experiences could have led him into poverty.  Instead he became one of the world’s wealthiest men, though the details of his biography suggest his ethics were not equal to his determination.

Ethical questions aside, I appreciate his words quoted above, because I have found them to be true again and again.  It might seem strange that a blog called “Defeat Despair” would highlight a quote about freeing ourselves from hope.  But freedom from false hope can actually be an important part of overcoming setbacks. It allows us to adjust to misfortune or grief rather than denying it with wishful thinking.

When Jeff was first diagnosed with stage IV adenocarcinoma, we read up and immediately came face to face with the bluntly unfavorable prognosis that was confirmed by his doctors.  A blessing we did not expect was the upbeat attitude of those who have provided his treatments.  They are candid in discussing the battle he faces, but many of them have encouraged us to look at cancer as a chronic condition rather than a death sentence; to resolve to live with cancer rather than focusing on dying from it.  To the extent that we have done this, we have been more able to weather the many difficult days, and cherish the relatively easy or peaceful ones, no matter how few and far between.

The next time you find yourself using the words “if only” or “I can’t wait until” or “when things calm down a bit,” remember the words of the Greek shipping magnate who harnessed the power of the unruly seas to bring himself legendary fortune.  Don’t wish for easier circumstances that may never arrive.  Learn to sail in the high winds.  It will be good experience — and perhaps it will be unexpectedly invigorating.


  1. Mike Bertoglio

    Growing up in the 60’s the pictures of Jackie with Aristotle always seemed a little incongruous after the dashing and handsome Jack. I think I was critical of her for trying to build a wall of money around her life, but who am I to judge.
    This is a great quote and there is obviously much more to him than appearance. The tragedy of his daughter- Isabella?- not withstanding.
    Usually in the high winds I try to, “batten down the hatches.”

    • Yes, I think most of us found the idea of Jackie being married to Onassis more than a little bit jarring. To paraphrase the much-quoted Iand IMO, tacky) words of Lloyd Bentsen about Dan Quayle, Onassis “was no Jack Kennedy.” While it’s true we don’t know the whole story, I think it was a fairly natural reaction to second-guess her decision, especially since the marriage, by all accounts, was no success. There is always so much more to people than meets the eye!

  2. Roger

    “Learn to sail in high winds” what a great quote. Living a life willing to do that before the high winds come, now that’s the trick! Sadly, most of us pray for safety over courage every time.
    May god bless you in the midst of the high winds!

    • Yes, I suppose it takes a rare degree of faith to choose (or at least prepare for) courage over safety. The interesting thing is, earthly safety of any kind is almost always an illusion. Some of us find that out more abruptly than others, but ultimately there’s no escaping that uncomfortable truth. Sooner or later we have to discover whether we’ve been trusting in the right things. Easier said than done. Thanks for your kind words and good wishes!

  3. Carolyn

    We are back from Jennifer’s and it is so good to be home. Our trip was a good one, I am very tired after a long two days of travel. I enjoyed your blog today. I just wanted to check in and I will send a note soon. Hope Jeff is doing well and Matt. I love the pictures of Grady. Love to all.

    • Thanks Carolyn, I’m so glad you are home safely after a nice visit. Jeff and I find that traveling seems to get a bit harder and more tiring each year, and you and Jeff especially must find it taxing. I know Jennifer appreciated your coming. We are doing well, Jeff is feeling pretty good since he’s between treatments. He gets re-scanned on Friday and we are praying for good results. Love to you and Terry!

  4. Jenelle

    I’m going through some “high sails” at the moment, and while I can’t see legendary fortune just yet, I know it’s there waiting to be claimed when the time is right. It’s all about perseverance and perspective! I agree with you, Julia, my experience so far has indeed been unexpectedly invigorating 🙂 Thank you for all you do here!

    • Jenelle, you are welcome! The people I have met through this blog have been one of the unexpected joys to emerge from all the pain and fear of the last year. I started the blog to force myself to count my blessings each day in a concrete, articulated way. I really had no idea how many wonderful people I would come in contact with. I finally understand why all the pundits keep referring to the buzz in the blogosphere! It’s been a wonderful experience that has made the past year so much more bearable for us, with the caring, good wishes and prayers that have been sent our way!

  5. MaryAnn

    Your words are exactly what I need at this time! I continue in prayer for “my” Dentons.
    Thanking you for the example of walking with God each day.
    Love, MaryAnn

    • Mary Ann, thanks so much! I am so happy to be in touch with you through this blog, as well as all the emails, letters and cards we have exchanged over the years!

  6. Very Nice Article.

    “Life should be an exciting adventure.” – Earl Nightingale.

    Aristotle said it best: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act…it’s a habit.”

    • Thank you! It’s encouraging (and also a little frightening) the power of seemingly small things when we remain consistent over a long span of time. Excellence is truly a habit, not something that just happens accidentally, and often adversity is what forms the discipline that results in excellence. I appreciate your visits here, and your comments!

  7. Jan Goodard

    I work people who have ALS, both in a clinic setting and in a support group. The statement living in spite of the ALS diagnosis instead of actively dying with it are so true. I watch my people live each day with great faith and courage. It is so humbling and inspiring to me. To paraphrase verses from James 1, facing trials and tough times serve to make your faith stronger.

    • Jan, thanks for sharing this observation with us. I think it must be so difficult– and also rewarding– to enjoy the daily fellowship of people who are facing circumstances we all would dread. Your statement about their courage calls to mind the well-known speech of the man whose name would be forever linked with ALS, a statement that has lived on to inspire so many. I appreciate your comments here!

  8. Really well said, Julia. “freedom from false hope.”

    My heart goes out to you and your family as you continue on the journey.

    • Thanks Alys, your presence here is always an encouragement. Speaking of which, I need to go read your blog to get some motivation to clean out, sort through and throw out so much of what has piled up over the past year. I really think it’s reached the point where it would be less exhausting to invest some time dealing with it, than it would be to do other things such as sleep in :-). I have really appreciated your tips on how to back up this blog to keep a digital copy. Thanks again for your kind comments.

      • Thanks, Julia.

        One tip that works for many is to set a timer for 15 minutes. Most of us can carve out 15 minutes a day. Set the intention to sort one area for a full 15 minutes. Go as fast as you can. Its amazing how energizing it can be. When the time is up, stop, or continue for another 15 minutes, depending on your energy and mood. Some people are exhausted by the process, others energized, but everyone gets something done.

        Let me know if you give it a try and if it helps.

        Another tip: focus on one category. If it’s magazines and newspapers, run around the house and gather that and only that, from every place you can think of. When you have it all in one place, its easier to focus on decisions for just that. I suggest tossing anything older than three months or donating the pile to a library.

        You can apply this game to anything: loose change, articles of clothing, ‘stale’ mail, books, etc.

        Best of luck.

        • Alys, as soon as I read your comment this morning, I decided to try a combination of tips 1 and 2 – it worked! and I ended up staying busy for almost an hour. YES, it is SOOOO rewarding when things look so much neater, almost instantly! I focused on just one room, really mostly on just one piece of furniture, where things tend to pile up. I once took a quiz for people who have problems with paper piles – GUILTY! – and one of the questions cracked me up so much that I’ve repeated it frequently over the years…”If the top of your head was flat, would there be a stack of papers on it!” It’s so hilarious because, at least in my case, it’s SO TRUE. Thanks for the tips!

          • Julia, I am so happy for you! Outstanding.

            LOL to the quote. I’ve not heard that one but it’s good.

            Now that you feel rewarded for your efforts, it will be that much easier the next time.

            • Yes, I need to keep going while I’m motivated! I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

              • How is it going?

                • You know, Alys, it’s going really well. I feel as if I might be turning some sort of corner. I haven’t gotten all that much done (though each small victory is huge in terms of psychological payoff) but I do think I’m changing the way I think about things. I’m reading a helpful book called The Hoarder in You that has really underscored my determination to stick with it. Thanks for checking in- accountability is very helpful too!

                  • Good for you, Julia! I’m so happy to hear this update.

                    Each small victory is a pay off. That ‘s also something to focus on when your energy lags and you need internal motivation…reminding yourself of that.

                    Perhaps you’ll let me know what you think of the book when you’re done.

                    • Yes Alys, I will. I’m about halfway through so if you don’t hear back from me on it within a week or two, feel free to jog my memory with an inquiry.

                    • You got it!

                      Happy Halloween, Julia!

  9. merry

    Julia, every since I read your post in UR last winter, I have admired your courage and strenght. I’ve witnessed(thru your blog and post) your fight for Jeff and Matt. How fortunate they are to have you on their side. You’ve fought to keep your balance in sifting sands. Thank you for sharing your courage with us.
    May your day be filled with blessings.

    • Thank you Merry, your presence on UR has been such an encouragement to all of us there, and the same can be said about your contributions here. I am so glad we met online! I am always cheered to hear from you. Your name is most appropriate.

  10. Raynard

    your picture reminds me of the two years I spent in Hawaii.( no I never did the hula and the pig thing was so passe,,,, can I share something? classicial music and black coffee helps me with my mirgaines. Got into classicial music after watching ‘Star Wars” and “Rocky”( 1st one). Just watched “Shawshank Redemption( last 5 minutes and listened to the music closely( sounds classicial to me.. The famous line that still “tears me up”. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. No good thing ever dies… But I add to that my ‘Hope is in God ‘ and not in myself….Going to NYC( Back home) Saturday. Oldest sister in a induced coma , going to visit her after 20 plus years of anger and bitterness and pain. . Thank God this isnt a test of the emergency broadcast system and I wasnt looking aluminum foil to put on my head watching for “the black helicopters lol.

    • Raynard, I am so sorry about your sister, and praying for a happy resolution to the emotionally and medically difficult situation. The Shawshank Redemption is one of my all time favorite movies. When I watched it years ago, I identified deeply with Andy DuFresne, and copied the very quote you mentioned into the front of a journal I kept back then. This would had to have been close to 20 years ago at least. Right under that I have written another quote from Samuel Johnson: “Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.” And right under that, the quote I featured on this blog in this post. Those three quotes have been read and re-read over the years, and have gotten me through many times of sorrow. Now I should add your words, “Hope is in God” as the fourth quote in the front of that same journal, where I now record the titles of books I have read. Traveling mercies to you on your journey, and prayers that your time with your sister will be richly blessed. Thanks so much for being here, and also for your blessing the Upper Room fellowship with your humor and understanding!

  11. A very hopeful message.

    • Thanks Tony! I appreciate your visits here.

  12. i am impressed by the courage strength and determination Jeff has had through this ordeal. THAT BOTH of you have had. I pray, pray, pray that the sea is calming down. That you find fair weather and smooth sailing ahead for a long time to come. God bless. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks, Amy. I am so, so glad we FINALLY got to be together for awhile. I think Jeff was annoyed that you were here with our home such a mess, but I know you love us anyway :-). Thanks for all the time you spent reading with Matt, and for showering so much love on him (and us)!

      • Was the house messy? I didn’t notice. Looked a lot like a home full of love and busy people to me.

        • Well, let’s just say that it looks a good bit better today than it did yesterday…but you are very generous, considering how perfect your house always looks. At Lipscomb, Willard Collins used to always say in chapel (in his big, booming voice) “BUSY AND HAPPY! BUSY AND HAPPY!” as if he could will us to be so. I loved it – he was a great way to start the day each morning.

  13. Larry

    Do you remember the Allman Brothers Band song “Keep on Keeping On”? Great motto also!

    • I am trying to call up a memory of that song, but I guess it’s too late at night (or I’m too old) – I’ll have to look for it on YouTube. All I can think of is Ramblin’ Man…assuming I’m even getting that much right…

  14. Sheila

    Julia, Bill and I are in Bristol,Tn. tonight, visitiing with our 91 year old dad, and feeling very blessed. He opted for surgery a month ago and is recovering now in rehab, with plans to be home for Christmas. His determination NOW is the discipline that others have always admired about him. Prayers are answered! Without wind, the sailboat would remain in port. Lovely photograph.

    • Thanks, Sheila! I appreciate your checking in with me from on the road. So happy y’all’s dad is planning to be home for Christmas! Yes, the wind is necessary even when we would rather just drift. Thanks for being here!

  15. Mike Bertoglio

    Ditto on Shawshank quotes. Also similar quote I think you used before from Helen Keller.” Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all. Security does not exist in nature nor for the most part in the life of mankind. To live only with the avoidance of danger is to end at same point as to experience it.” Something like that.

    • Helen Keller was so amazing. When I stop to think about what it would be like to go through life without the two senses on which we rely the most, it staggers the mind. Her quotes are inspiring and carry the authority of one who earned the right to share her wisdom.

  16. Mike Bertoglio

    I pray you get good news on Friday.

    • Thanks Mike. We won’t get any results that day…probably not until next week or possibly even later, but till then, we are trusting and praying…

  17. Speaking metaphorically, I’ve sailed in high winds and after the initial panic subsides and instinct takes over it’s surprising how calm you can be. I’m not afraid to learn how to do it better though and have reached out to experts when I think I may sink and I need help. As hard as those adventures seem, it’s comforting to not go it alone and to have experienced friends to guide you and help you reach a safe port.

    I liked your visitors other quote above, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act…it’s a habit.” That really resonates with me.

    I always learn so much here Julia xK

    • Thanks K, we do get some really good comments here, don’t we? People who know how to sail amaze me. It can be physically demanding, and those who make daring voyages alone have always been fascinating to me. Their adventures are a great metaphor for life, as you mention. In San Francisco I learned about Kenichi Horie when I saw his tiny boat, the Mermaid, on display in the museum there. I read his book Kodoku all about how, as a very young man, he sailed alone across the pacific. Quite a story! He has since done many other amazing things. We have so much to learn from people who have blazed trails for us, literally and figuratively.

  18. Raynard

    Was I the only one who didn’t like that Bobby McFerrin song Don’t worry be happy? Its right up there next to Scooby Do and Captain kangaroo. Give me credit I know who Kuka Fran and Ollie is.I loved lampchop also,this is a song that never ends.. It goes on and on my friends lol

    • I must admit, I did love the song, but it was mostly just the novelty of him singing without instruments and still creating a beat that sounded almost calypso to me. I do remember thinking it was a bit TOO laid back to suggest that even with no place to sleep, landlords litigating etc. it’s nothing to worry about. When Jeff and I were in the Bahamas a few years before that song came out, we heard a singer talking between songs and saying “Here in the islands, we have a saying, NO PROBLEM. And even if you got a problem, it’s still NO PROBLEM.” It sounds appealing but it really doesn’t fly, no matter how much we want to defeat despair! WOW, I haven’t heard anyone mention Kukla Fran and Ollie in a long time!

  19. Hi, Julia… Loved this post.
    My father passed away on 11th. He died peacefully.
    After reading this I feel that he would have lived longer had he been able “to adjust to misfortune or grief”. But I don’t know I would be able to do that in such a condition.
    There’s a saying in our language which can be roughly translated thus: When water rises above our heads go for the boat. It means instead of giving up or waiting for situations to improve go for the next possible step.
    Hope you are successfully sailing in high winds.

    • Bindu, I am so sorry to learn of your father’s passing. I am glad he died peacefully. I think there are many who die sooner due to the stresses of misfortune and grief– and as you say, none of us can know for sure how we would handle such things until we actually face them. I really like the saying you shared! I have never heard it before, but will certainly remember it now. No matter what the future brings, if we are blessed to live a long life, there will surely be times for all of us when we have to “go for the boat.” Thanks so much for translating and sharing this bit of wisdom. We are sailing mostly successfully (though sometimes we are forced to “Bring To” as the saying goes, and catch our breath. Just now we are enjoying a period of relative calm, and preparing for whatever storms may lie in the future. Thanks for being here! I am always so happy to hear from you.


  1. And yet be determined | Defeat Despair

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