On the 5th of January, 1800, John Honey was nineteen years old. He was attending a service at Saint Salvator’s Chapel at the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland.
News came of a small ship, Janet of Macduff, which had gotten stranded east of the harbor. Five men were trapped on board, the sea around them was stormy, and there was no lifeboat stationed in the town.
Countless people stood on the shore that day, watching the ship in distress. Only one dove into January cold water. It was an active decision, either way.
Honey stripped off his clothes and had his friends tie a rope around his waist, then, with a knife, waded into the water and began swimming toward the boat.
Newton’s First Law:
Every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force.
Unless compelled to change.
The compulsion is not the tricky part. We make resolutions every year. The ancient Babylonians were the first to make them, four thousand years ago. The Romans promised their god Janus each year that they would do better than the one before. The Jews, the early Christians, those who centuries later went to mass that January 5th, and the 60% of us who, two weeks ago, pledged to pay attention, to improve, to change.
We stand on our marks, set, but halfway through January, get busy, jaded, cold feet. We see the lady in front of us struggle with her bags, but our groceries are heavy too. Watch strangers drowning but the water is freezing. Our intentions waver as we hesitate.
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,'
What if we change nothing, save no one? What if we fail, what if it hurts, what if we feel?
‘And you ask "What if I fall?"
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?’
― Erin Hanson
One hundred and seventeen years ago this month, Honey failed to reach the sinking boat. His friends pulled the rope back, pulled him out. But Honey dove in again. The second time, he reached the boat, and tied the rope to the mast as a lifeline to shore. But the crewmembers were too weak to pull themselves to safety, so Honey made five more trips back and forth to carry each one across.
Newton’s Second Law:
Force is equal to the change in momentum per change in time.
Momentum is the force that keeps an object moving once it has been launched. But momentum demands an initial thrust, a decision. It cannot occur on its own.
Momentum must be built; mass times movement. First of all, much mass. The first dive is the hardest, coldest; Change is a challenge to Newton’s First Law. The first fall hurts most, but if we get back up, do not stop, next comes velocity. With time we pick up speed. The faster we go, the faster we can go; that’s how a snowball becomes an avalanche.
On the 5th of January, one hundred and sixteen years later, another man saw a boat in distress. Gavin Reid and his crew were sailing along the Australian coast when they intercepted an SOS. He volunteered to swim to the stricken boat; he had never sailed before. He found four men incapacitated and one trapped by the ropes and mast. Two hours later he had disentangled him and saved the entire crew.
Now imagine what would happen if one fool who cared and dared became two, three, four. They may not change the world but every one of them could save five drowning men’s lives. What if to every resolution made we added a little mass? What if we built momentum and let our fear push us forward, not back?
We are guaranteed nothing but remaining on our marks if we do not make the first move. We will never be more ready or set, but if we go, we may just fly.