aim higher: jack sparrow as a life coach

For the last few months I have been thinking about the gaps between who we hope to be and who we prove to be. To be human is to be hypocritical, so there is a sense in which we could all shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and say, “guilty, yes…whatever.” And yet. Surely we aren’t willing to settle for such laziness, such defeat. If we are to aim higher, we need to muster a little more concern for how our actions align with our stated values. If anything matters, then everything matters.

In the original Pirates of the Caribbean, a young and painfully brave Will Turner (played by Orlando Bloom), finds himself aiding and abetting a pirate (Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp). Turner finds this despicable, even though he certainly tried to resist the coercion at every turn. Nevertheless and despite his conviction, Turner finds himself in a position he does not think he can live with: He is, in fact, the right hand man of a pirate. He loathes pirates, but here he is.

It is in this critical moment that Jack Sparrow reveals to Turner that he is also, in fact, the son of a pirate. Will Turner’s father was called Bootstrap Bill, and, according to Sparrow, was, “A good man. A great Pirate.” Turner simply cannot accept this idea. His entire being is invested in his rejection of pirate codes and the like. Foolishly, rather than face the truth about his own heritage, he pulls a sword on the Captain. 

Swiftly knocked off his feet by his brilliant would-be victim, Turner finds himself dangling off a sail mast (maybe? I have far exceeded my knowledge of pirate and sailing-adjacent trivia, and heretofore will make up names in order to get through this story), hanging precariously over the ocean below. It is then that Sparrow offers this savvy advice:

“Now as long as you’re just hanging there, pay attention. The only rules that really matter are these: What a man can do, and what a man can’t do. For instance, you can either accept that your father was a pirate AND a good man, or you can’t. But pirate is in your blood boy, so you’ll have to square with that one day.”

Sparrow speaks as a man unwilling to surrender to his own unexamined hypocrisy. He knows the paralysis that comes when a person claims to be one thing but lives as another. He knows that Turner can try to outrun the conflicting identities of his past, but he also knows that eventually, he will have to face them.

We all need a moment where we come face to face with the wisdom of Captain Jack Sparrow. Rather than live as if our hypocrisies are not as egregious as their hypocrisies, why don’t we change our patterns? Each of us is a compilation of the patterns that reveal our priorities. Its true that most of us think our values determine our habits, but for the majority it works the other way round. Our patterns, our habits, our unacknowledged liturgies and rituals—these are the things that reveal who we are and what we care about.

If we want to avoid being diminished by our unacknowledged hypocrisies, we might consider beginning a new pattern of observation. When we begin a daily practice of observing our own behaviors without judgment, we equip ourselves to notice the places where our behaviors and beliefs are out of alignment. Paying attention to ourselves—the way we approach others, not just our own desires and needs—is hard work. It can be exhausting, but the practice of attentive observation allows us to see the gaps between who we hope to be and who we prove to be.

When confronted with our hypocrisies, many of us experience a vague sense of shame. Living under shame is soul-crushing, made even worse when we refuse to look into the source of the shame or to explore possible pathways out of it. Still, many of us stew in this broth of awful. We are neither free enough to align our actions with who we hope to be nor miserable enough to change our daily patterns. Instead, we complain about the toxic state of politics while we disparage acquaintances who disagree with us. We lament the lack of civic engagement while we forget to vote. We decry lackluster work ethics while we bail our kids out of consequences. We worry about the environment while driving giant gas guzzlers in 5 mile loops around our temp-regulated houses. We shake our heads at sex trafficking while we dabble in porn. We roll our eyes at trophies for every kid while we chronically celebrate our dazzlingly exceptional children. We long for meaningful community while we ignore our neighbors. We vilify the fracturing impact of technology while becoming increasingly addicted to its perks.

If we want to aim higher then we must answer Sparrow’s challenge: What can we do and what can’t we do? When observing the world, it is sometimes tempting to either commit to radical change or to completely shut down, convinced nothing can be done to improve. Rather than start a non-profit or move off the grid, I suggest a milder, and much more impactful approach: Have a conversation with yourself about what you can do and what you can’t do.

Do what you can.

Stop living as you can’t.

Everything matters.  

Will we be brave enough to observe our own hypocrisies? Will we commit to paying attention so our actions support the things we value? Or will we continue to dangle out over the ocean, thrown off balance because we refuse to notice the truth of how we live, unaware of the choice before us?