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Lessons Learned over Breakfast with Sterling Hayden

By February 4, 2012No Comments

Sterling Hayden

Back in the late seventies I was having breakfast with my friend Jet Johnson in Sausalito, California. We were talking that morning about how great it would have been to have met Jack London, who had lived in Sausalito in the early part of the century. As it happened I had bought a book the day before and had it with me. It was not a Jack London novel, but it was a book by another famous Sausalito resident-although I did not take much notice of the author being local when I bought it.

The book was called Voyage and it is an incredible novel of adventure on the high seas in the 19th century days of sail. I had the very thick tome on the table, title turned face down. On the back was a black and white portrait of the author, a distinguished man with a white beard sort of like Hemingway but with more of a weathered and worldly look about him.

Jet and I were chatting away when a very tall,white-bearded man sat down at the next table and ordered his breakfast. He looked over at us, glanced at the book and said, “Not a bad read that.”

I replied, “Er do you thi….?’’

I was speechless. The face at the table was the same face on the book jacket.

“Sterling Hayden, wow. I ah, well, like wow, like I have your book here,” I said kind of stupidly.

“I see that,” he said.

I am not impressed easily by celebrities, unless they are writers or folk singers and this was one hell of a writer. He was also an actor of course, but it was his writing that impressed me. He signed my book, which I still treasure, and we talked for awhile about saving whales and life at sea. He told us about fishing the Grand Banks on a schooner, of sailing tall ships and how much the sea meant to him, “more than anything else,” he said.

What most impressed me about Hayden was the aura of self-confidence and contentment he wore, making him look like he was born in the weathered pea coat he was wearing, like he was a man who knew who he was, where he was going, and what was important in life.

After that breakfast with Hayden I read his two great books (the other being The Wanderer) and watched his movies. I discovered something very important about him that explained his sense of confidence in himself and the air of contentment that made him so relaxed and easy going. Hayden had lived his life the way I was at the time living mine and continue to do and that is by following your heart and not being swayed by money and status.

Like Hayden, I had never worked a day in my life just for money. Work was something one did for adventure and to secure money only as a means to further the adventures of life. In fact not having money was better than actually having it, because it presented more of a challenge, or as Robert Service once wrote in a poem about the Klondike gold rush: “It wasn’t the gold I was after, so much as finding the gold.”

The lesson that I was then learning by talking with and later reading Hayden, was that it is best to not worry about money and security and to put value in freedom instead. After all the word “mortgage” is derived from the Latin word for “death.” So many people have told me they would love to do what I do but they can’t afford it, or they have mortgage obligations, car payments, bills to pay, and a retirement fund to consider; or they have a family to raise.

In my twenties I believed that thinking of retirement was like surrendering to death and rejected putting money away for it. At sixty, I feel the same way. Life is to be lived and not to be wasted contemplating the end of it. As for money, I found-like Hayden-that if you do what your heart directs you to do, “follow your bliss” as Joseph Campbell once observed, well, that the money comes. At least enough for your needs usually and often times more so, and that allows for generosity and the furtherance of ideas.

This idea was portrayed in the recent Woody Allan movie “Midnight in Paris” where the character played by Owen Wilson chooses to be a poor struggling novelist in Paris and leaves his very high paying job as a screen writer in Hollywood to do so. It is in the struggle that the artist truly lives. Creativity is cultivated best on stony, cold, dry ground, more so than in the warm comfort of rich, black loam.

Hayden could have been enormously wealthy and guaranteed to be materially secure, but he walked away from acting to join the military in World War II and then to crew on ships and fish the Grand Banks, or sail across the Pacific. He also married twice and raised a family. He returned to acting only when he needed to raise funds for another adventure.

He was a man of a diversity of talents. He was an actor, author, sailor, marine, male model, and espionage agent for the OSS. At twenty-two, he skippered a square rigger from Boston to Tahiti. His many movies between 1941 and 1981 included the Godfather, where he played Irish police captain McCluskey and Dr. Strangelove, where he played the mad Brigadier General Jack Ripper. As he once said about acting, “I started at the top and worked my way down.”

He was not poor but the point is he did not care about the money. It came because he was doing what he wanted to do. He was not influenced by the opinions of others. He lived his life the way he wanted to and not the way others wanted him to or expected him to. It has been my experience that this is the true path to happiness, detachment from the material desires and concentration on the desires of the heart and the curiosity of the mind. It’s not what you own but what you feel, what you experience, and what you do to make the world a better place- in whatever field of endeavour you should choose to participate.

Sterling Hayden encouraged me to persue the path I was on with the confidence that it was indeed the right path. Thirty some years later I find myself looking back on a satisfying life, having done many of the things I set out to do and continuing to do more. At the same time I have a lovely and intelligent daughter, so I did not have to sacrifice a family to pursue my dreams and I did not sacrifice my dreams to have a family and my daughter is now pursuing her dreams in the same way.

My dream is to defend the living oceans and the diversity of life within the ecology of the sea. I have done so to the best of my ability, with the resources made available to me, and I will continue to do so until the day I die. In following this dream, I have become many things: a ship’s captain, a writer, a television personality, a public speaker, a strategist, a poet, and a historian. Most importantly, however, I have been able- like Hayden did- to live my life without material attachment and thus I will leave this world as I entered it – with nothing but a dream ended for a dream began, having perfectly enjoyed every minute of the experience.

Living without material attachment does not mean owning nothing or not having material goods. It means not being owned by what you own. It means not worrying about losing such things when necessary, and not betraying integrity and principles and especially freedom for such things. It means making decisions not based on material gain, but for the greater good of the cause. The cause being one’s dreams and objectives, whatever they may be. It also means the seeking of hardships, sacrifice, difficulties, and problems as challenges to be confronted. It means choosing adventure over comfort and uncertainty over security.

Sterling Hayden wrote the following about sailing and I think it applies just as validly to any person’s life, no matter the path they choose:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

– Sterling Hayden

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