Sometime the timing of events makes one pause for reflection. Like last week’s timing of Ash Wednesday followed by Valentine’s Day. While so much of our society was scurrying to find the right way to share expressions of love, many were remembering one named Jesus who expressed supreme love with the ultimate sacrifice. Commercials began months ago, and as the day came closer people started asking, “What are you going to do on Valentine’s Day?” Yet for those of us who spend each day with those who spend most of their lives at sea, mostly from nations other than the USA, this “holiday” never enters the conversation.
These dedicated people from nations with struggling economies on whom the world’s economy rests (after all, 95 percent of all goods travel by ship) celebrate few commercial holidays that we take for granted. Working away from home most days of the year, enduring 30-foot waves, cold and damp days at sea and long hours without touching land, these people are like all of us trying to earn a living for our family — except they really know the meaning of love. It makes one wonder, is love the commercial romance that seems to define our culture, or is it doing what is necessary to support your family and your wife’s family the essence of true love? Is love a romantic dinner or a phone call three days before Valentine’s, the first in four weeks, because that is the only time you were able to be near enough to land to use a phone?
I’m not trying to bash Valentine’s Day; after all, taking one day to express love for someone special is far better than taking them for granted. I merely wonder about why we tend to define it in emotional, commercial ways and often forget the small, sacrificial things that happen each day that express a love much stronger and more valuable.
For those who work at sea on merchant vessels, every day is the same. The expression of love they offer their family is dedication. Loyalty, service, concern their loved-ones will live fruitful lives because of their efforts. I suggest the silent, lonely work they do speaks volumes to their family, especially the children. A recent conversation with one whose father was an American merchant mariner showed the value of such servanthood. When asked, “Did you feel any loss or resentment at your father’s never being home for the important events?” The response was loud and clear: “As a child I knew nothing else, but always knew he loved me and was sacrificing for our family. Years later, as an adult, my love and appreciation for what he did grew even more.”
Recently, a seafarer from another nation briefly in the Port of Boston offered a seafarer’s insight into sacrificial love.
“I don’t like my daughter to see me like this,” he points to his dirty work clothes. “Working like this I don’t want them to see how hard my work is.”
He has been at sea 28 years, sometimes going home for only 15 days or one month at a time. His four children are grown, two with good jobs in the U.S. and two in university. This is why he has given so much — to see them succeed.
As tears flow, he smiles and offers, “I am so proud of them.”
Imagine, 28 lonely and difficult years away so his family can enjoy what he cannot. Is this Jesus speaking?
Maybe next year is the time to rethink how we celebrate Valentine’s Day. On the other hand, why wait for Valentine’s Day? Perhaps we can offer a love that goes to the level of sacrifice, honor, loyalty and is best reflected in the person historically known as Jesus. Perhaps expressing love for another can occur any day, every day. Those who make their living at sea can teach us so much about love.
The Rev. J. Loring Carpenter is executive director of Seafarer’s Friend, a ministry to seafarers on the ships entering the ports of Boston, Portsmouth and Portland. Look for information on this ministry at www.seafarersfriend.org. Email for information at firstname.lastname@example.org.