Image Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential LibraryMy desk has very few personal items on it. Yet for years there sat a plaque which read: “Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

Its verse is from the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer, a poem by Winfred Ernest Garrison — and and the plaque is a replica of one that sat on the desk of President John F. Kennedy. It was presented to him — and every new submarine captain — by Admiral Hyman Rickover.

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I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly religious, nor Celtic, nor a seaman. This prayer should mean nothing to me, yet I have been unable to extract it from my life. In fact, I’ve turned to it in countless times of struggle over the years.

Initially, I came across this prayer in a West Wing episode, titled “Faith-Based Initiatives.” The plot line of the episode is not so important — what is important is what that television show brought into my life, and how I have grown from it.

For nearly a decade, as I pushed myself through final exams in undergraduate and law school, I would watch The West Wing from Season 1, Episode 1 all the way through the end. It was my way to unwind after pushing myself mentally and emotionally to succeed in my course work. It provided a comfortable routine to return to and frankly kept me stable in many ways. While just a television show, it became an important part of my Washington, DC narrative — the idealism of the characters, the smart and snappy dialogue, and the belief that no matter your background, you can have an impact. In difficult and frightening political times, the show became a security blanket. And every once in a while, it really taught me something.

For me, of course, there is a deeper connection to this plaque than it’s presence in a few frames of a television show I adore. We live in a world in which it is quite simple to become removed, self-centered, and to forget that we are but one being in a vast, diverse and ever-changing universe. Alone, we are captains of our own small boats, drifting in a large ocean. In trying times, it can all seem overwhelming. And this is when our perspective — our worldview — is most important.

The sea, as mentioned on the plaque and in the prayer, is our world — it is as large as we care to view it. We can look out and just see the horizon, and believe that is where the world ends. After all, if we cannot see past it, then why acknowledge what may be out there? But there is so much more to see, learn, and acknowledge — our boat is only one small part of the large sea.

So what does it all mean?

Of course our boat will rock.

Of course a wave will come.

In fact, we may get thrown overboard. We may get soaked to the bone. We may cry out in agony, and tire while swimming for shore.

But if we choose to view the world as a vast ocean, and not our small pond, then we can see that we are small, and the sea is great — and every storm is only a dark cloud when viewed from 50,000 ft.

Here is the poem in its entirety:

Thy sea, O God, so great,My boat so small.It cannot be that any happy fateWill me befallSave as Thy goodness opens paths for meThrough the consuming vastness of the sea.

Thy winds, O God, so strong,So slight my sail.How could I curb and bit them on the longAnd saltry trail,Unless Thy love were mightier than the wrathOf all the tempests that beset my path?

Thy world, O God, so fierce,And I so frail.Yet, though its arrows threaten oft to pierceMy fragile mail,Cities of refuge rise where dangers cease,Sweet silences abound, and all is peace.

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- Winfred Ernest Garrison

Thanks to Rishon Roberts and Daniel Chayes for their assistance in editing this piece.