Partners in the hazard of life

Otago_bark_1869-2The Mirror of the Sea, Joseph Conrad’s book about people, ships and the sea, is full of good things, even if you’re only really interested in people. For Conrad, the sea was a mirror in which we could see ourselves. Here he discusses handling ships and dealing with people — this passage is what I used to think about when being trained in communication and the like on work courses.

All vessels are handled in the same way as far as theory goes, just as you may deal with all men on broad and rigid principles.  But if you want that success in life which comes from the affection and confidence of your fellows, then with no two men, however similar they may appear in their nature, will you deal in the same way.  There may be a rule of conduct; there is no rule of human fellowship.  To deal with men is as fine an art as it is to deal with ships.  Both men and ships live in an unstable element, are subject to subtle and powerful influences, and want to have their merits understood rather than their faults found out.

It is not what your ship will not do that you want to know to get on terms of successful partnership with her; it is, rather, that you ought to have a precise knowledge of what she will do for you when called upon to put forth what is in her by a sympathetic touch.  At first sight the difference does not seem great in either line of dealing with the difficult problem of limitations.  But the difference is great.  The difference lies in the spirit in which the problem is approached.  After all, the art of handling ships is finer, perhaps, than the art of handling men.

And, like all fine arts, it must be based upon a broad, solid sincerity, which, like a law of Nature, rules an infinity of different phenomena.  Your endeavour must be single-minded.  You would talk differently to a coal-heaver and to a professor.  But is this duplicity?  I deny it.  The truth consists in the genuineness of the feeling, in the genuine recognition of the two men, so similar and so different, as your two partners in the hazard of life.

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