The Great Ship

There was a time when there were much fewer people in the world, and all of them lived on a great wooden ship. Who had built the ship, no one living could recall. The ship had been sailing for so many generations that memories had grown dark. Many myths laid claim to the truth of its origin. Most of the stories fell into one general, agreed-upon account: back in the dark past, they say, the earth was not completely covered in water. The wise pointed out the obvious – the wood, from which the great ship was built, must have been grown in ground, no trees grew in the sea. No plant grown in the great food gardens of the ship could ever reach a size large enough to make even one plank of the hull, so thick and sturdy were they. How could any tree planted on board grow tall enough or its roots deep enough to withstand the storms and the great undulations of the biggest waves? No, it was quite certain to all, except the small cult of creationists who believed that the Great Ship Builder in the sky had put a fully-made boat down in the ocean with just a minimal original crew, that the boat was built on land, and that the stories of solid ground and vast forests of woody trees were all true. What happened to the land? There were tales of that, too; stories of great calamities and upheavals, of sinful people and populations, of retribution by the gods and the escape of a chosen few in the Great Ship. But who had built the ship? Perhaps it was the work of many people, perhaps some of the more fanciful stories had it right: that it was all the work of one Great Man - the Nameless Saviour, the Mighty Ship Builder!


Originally, the maintenance and running of the ship was the collective responsibility of all able bodied adults. In a world of endless, landless ocean, it would seem that no one direction would be more pressing than another, but, in truth, some locations were better than others. There were people on board who studied the sky and the sun, and recorded their observations. They also studied the records of those that came before, those, who in the past had observed very closely the weather patterns and their relationship to the latitudes and determined, that in this completely watery world, the only reasonable and wise thing to do would be to continuously maintain the ship’s course within the most favourable ranges of latitude, steering the ship as carefully as possible to maximize the best weather and calmest seas; to keep the ship pointed towards the most moderate temperatures and sunlight for the crops that were grown on board, and to follow the best fishing.


But, there were also dissenting views. On board were many people who fervently believed that somewhere out upon this wide ocean was an island of land, which God had made and put there, in order for his people to find it – for the deserving to find it. If the people remained selfish and sinful, God would continue to send ill-winds and storms to blow them away from this Promised land. Though charts had been made over the centuries, of the latitudes and paths of the sun through the seasons, and much of the world’s watery surface had been searched to no avail, there were still vast areas – most of the total area, actually, that could not be safely explored. The storms encountered there were too unpredictable, too violent and risky, the seas too rough and treacherous. There were historical accounts of the Great Ship’s many close calls. The stories recount those times when all was almost lost and taboos had formed around those latitudes that harboured the danger of hurricanes that came up without warning, so large they could not be outrun.


Yet, there were still many who pressed hard to abandon the ‘safe’ routes. Believers had unshakeable faith that the Promised Island was not to be found in the sunny latitudes. Humanity was being tested. Their task was to master themselves; they must stop sinning. God had made the way difficult but he would protect the pure and brave through the uncharted waters; God would reveal the land to those that could stay the course.

There was much debate and fighting between the two general factions – those that believed in the Promised Island and those that were led by rationality and observation. The ‘Rationalists’ felt strongly that the ‘Believers’ should not be allowed to recklessly endanger all the passengers for the sake of their pipe dreams. The Believers were convinced that these ‘safe sea’ Rationalists were the primary reason that God continued to cloak the Island that was their birthright. The rationalist’s lifestyle, their disbelief, their hedonism – was continually evoking God’s displeasure and was, without doubt, the sole reason that God continued to hide the Promised Island.


Somewhere back in history, the original egalitarian society of the ship began to disintegrate and re-form into a hierarchy. No one alive remembers when their society was not so divided, but the stories still tell of a time when all the people did once work together in harmony.

Some say the change was instigated by the Great Famine, when the fishing suddenly became less and less dependable. Those strong people who had always manned the nets and did the largest share of the hard labour of catching fish, had first taken the task upon themselves because they were proud of their strength and the blessing of good health they had been given; they saw their blessing as a gift that came with a responsibility, a duty to work for those who could not do what they did. But the great fish disappearance changed all that. With dwindling catches, the fishermen began to see their value to the whole ship rising steadily. And instead of approaching the rest of the people, who had, by that time, it’s true, grown well-accustomed to the fisherman doing the bulk of the work; instead of suggesting that all people contribute more of their effort, the fisherman kept to their roles, guarded the lines and nets they had managed, and thus held control of the food supply. Eventually, they asked themselves ‘why should all get an equal share when we are the ones doing all the work?’ ‘Why shouldn’t we have more than the others?, they asked themselves.’ The hard work they did demanded the extra nourishment if they were to maintain the strength needed to fish the dwindling stocks. Why should they, they asked, still continue to treat the nets and lines and hooks as ‘communal property,’ when, really, it was because of their work, their expertise and strength that turned those things into food. It was their skill that allowed the net makers and cord rollers to feed themselves and their families. And so, slowly, the nets became the ‘property’ of the fisherman. And the wealth of the sea became theirs. Private fishing lines were outlawed, for they interfered with the large nets. The net-makers became employees. The ‘water-catchers’ whose task it was to collect fresh rain water, and the ‘barrel-makers who built the vessels which stored the rain water and the dried fish for all to eat, all became employees. And finally, with control of the fresh water and food from the sea, with control of the barrels for storage, the fishermen turned their eyes to the great gardens that grew the vegetables and grain, and to the sacred seed hoards. With their growing power, they bought the services of the most aggressive and mean-spirited folks on the ship; those people, who respected strong leaders; for whom anger, discontent and lack of empathy are birth-traits; who valued the feeling of importance and power that their role as guards gave them. The fisherman and their following grew so strong in numbers that they could no longer be challenged. Their ears and eyes, their spies, thugs were everywhere - no growing rebellion would ever have a chance again.


No longer did the strong children born to other families aspire to become fisherman and contribute to the welfare of all. New fishing positions were given primarily to family of the fisherman. And so the fishing dynasties formed and concentrated their power. Their wealth passed down within the family and amassed, growing to absurd proportions. It is said that the two richest fishing families, alone, held promissory notes for a full 50 years of fish between them. With that kind of wealth, no poor family could hope to escape dependency.

Lastly, the fishermen confronted their final and most important obstacle – the legitimization of their status. Those who try to hold power by rule of force alone live continuously under the threat of an uncontrollable, spontaneous uprising of the masses. Starvation, abuse, deprivation, suffering – when too many afflictions were put upon the collective population, if too much brutality was administered, if too much was taken away, the general population would eventually reach a state where they had little to lose; where their own life was irrelevant. They would become energized by watching the suffering of their friends and family and would ignite like a dry forest in a drought, needing only the spark of a single courageous leader to set them off. For the fishermen, there was only one bulwark against such a danger, and that was the support and acquiescence of the leaders of the Believers. The Promised Island – the great land of hope – was what gave so many countless passengers spiritual strength. And the fear of God’s displeasure, that he would keep the Promised Island hidden from them, was a powerful threat. And so, the leaders of the Believers aligned with the Fisherman. The leaders of the Believers were well rewarded and their group given power and protection. Soon they began to preach that the fishermen were God’s chosen; that they were the legitimate rulers, the ones who would lead the ship to the Promised Island. And so, the fisherman supported the Believers, the Believers legitimized the fisherman, and soon the control of the Great Ship was theirs.


In past times, the deck of the ship was devoted, in part, to the growing of food and to the harvesting of the sea. The rest was occupied by the sturdy huts and tents which had been the domiciles of the original fisherman and farmers – who needed to be on deck for proximity to their work. But as the fishermen grew in affluence and power they found that they could hire others to do the actual job of fishing, while they, now fisherman in status and lineage only, holding themselves as the descendants of the ‘Great Houses of fishermen’ – did not need to remain above deck. After all, people who lived on the deck had to deal with the inclemency of weather; of the blazing sun and frosty cold, and risk the danger of sudden fierce winds and storms. And so, soon the fishermen, their families, the Believers and their entourage, started moving to the hold below, pushing those that had once been below upwards. The poorest were forced first, until the upper deck was half full of makeshift lean-tos and hovels, the poor crowded together in high-density, increasingly squalid living conditions.


The fisherman and Believers soon realized that while the hold of the ship was safer and more comfortable, it was also darker. The few windows that existed did not allow enough sunlight for their liking. And so those privileged folk begin the process of enlarging their portholes. The size of the windows grew and their number multiplied until the lower decks filled with sunlight. Families began to compete with each other over who could display the most artistic and elaborate windows in their grand cabins. All the glass already on board was suddenly needed for the new openings. In fact, when all the available glass was used up some of the precious soil from the great gardens was bought up, cleaned and melted to make more window glass. The wood that was cut from the thick hull to make the openings was given to artisans who were paid to carve them into beautiful art objects, again for the beautification of the sumptuous cabins of the fishermen. The greatest of these wooden masterpieces was a massive sculpture donated by several fishermen families to the newly built Great Hall of the Believers. It was an enormous carving of an Island shoreline with wooden palms, laden with elaborate fruits; fruit that no longer resembled any real existing fruit, but a burgeoning cornucopia of fantastical imagination. Small painted wooden animals of unknown species peered between the carved fern fronds and palm leaves. The power of this carving to mesmerize and overwhelm the devoted congregations of Believers was immediately recognized by the clergy, and they soon demanded more carvings. The wood needed for such an enterprise was becoming scarce, as the mania for windows had reached a practical threshold; there was very little space left on the hull that could be safely cut into.


However, a solution was found: a brilliant solution that opened up a new, voluminous supply of wood. For, it was realized that the lowest floor of the ship’s hull had been constructed to almost ridiculous specifications; over-engineered to an absurd degree. The bottom of the ship, it was determined was, inexplicably, five-times thicker than the upper walls of the hull, and this, in the consensus of the ship experts within the Believer congregation, was fully twice the thickness it needed to be, even given the most conservative estimates of safe, sea-worthy construction. A meeting of the Believer clergy was soon called, and the discovery and its possibilities were discussed. Why had the hull been made so overly-thick? It seemed obvious. God had either put the extra wood there himself or had caused the Great Ship Builder to include the wood there for a purpose. After considering all the likely reasons for this, the answer was conclusive: God had put, or had commanded it be built into the ship, the extra wood so that the passengers, upon reaching the Promised Island, would have more than enough to construct the buildings of their first colony. It was really a surplus of wood, put where it would be least intrusive. And here it was, still available for temporary and appropriate use. Whether the ‘surplus’ wood was stored in the hull floor or was transferred to another place, what was the difference? While it awaited its use in the first colony, why couldn’t the surplus wood be put to use for the beautification and artistic decoration of the Great Believer’s Hall – for the glory of God?


It was shortly after the synod, after carpenters began removing the upper planks from the ship’s hull floor that rumours began to circulate throughout the entire population of the ship. People began to criticize the mad rush to carve windows into the ship’s hull, just so the wealthy families could have more light below. They also began to question the motives and the legitimacy of the unnamed authorities who had determined that the hull was made with ‘extra’ wood, and murmured about the insanity of removing it for the use of mere religious decoration. This was, the people began to say loudly, not only extremely selfish behaviour but it likely had weakened the integrity of the ship and put everyone, including the fisherman and Believers themselves, into danger. How would such a structurally weakened hull handle the next mega storm?


But such fears were downplayed by the Believers. In their weekly services they pushed aside the concerns of the congregation, castigating them. Where is your faith? Would God give us such a Great Ship only to allow it to sink? Would he punish us for modifying it in order to praise him? Would he have put the extra wood in the hull and given us the wisdom to recognize it, and then not want us to use it for his glory? Would he promise us an Island and then not see us safely there? Surely, the fisherman and their families were not to blame. Surely the Believers could not be blamed. It was the Rationalists who were the disbelievers; who kept God from revealing his promise to his true followers.


Surely, the task of every Believer must be to fight for control of the ship; surely God would never let us come to harm or ruin.

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