“We are all in the same boat” is an expression that you have probably heard on more than one occasion. It is generally used to refer to the need to pitch in for a common goal since our decisions and behaviors affect everyone.
And it is true.
But there is an important nuance that we often forget. And that nuance changes things quite a bit.
What is the origin of the expression “we are all in the same boat”?
The phrase “we are all in the same boat” is attributed to the ancient Greeks, who apparently used it to refer to the risks and dangers they faced when they had to travel together in a small boat on unpredictable seas.
Long before, the Chinese already used a very similar expression: “Crossing the river in the same boat”. However, its meaning was slightly different since they used it to refer to the need to help each other in difficult times.
In the 16th century, the English poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas was one of the first to use a similar phrase: “For in one boat we both unbarked be” to refer to the common loss and shared pain in the face of storms.
Everything seems to indicate that the idea that there is something that unites us, especially in adversity, transcends cultures, societies and time. And it probably comes from that very human need to feel cocooned in pain and suffering. Feeling that, despite the sorrows, something unites us is both comforting and hopeful.
However, although this phrase may sound very poetic, it does not capture the essence of the reality we live in, which is why it is often used as a wild card to not make an effort to understand the other or even to ask for extra effort that is completely unfair.
The trap of thinking we are in the same boat
Phrases like “I understand what you are going through, at the end of the day, we are all in the same boat” can be said with the best of intentions, but they can also sound extremely selfish and frustrating to those who hear them, especially when they are having a really bad time.
Although being human unites us, each person is unique and so is their circumstances, so it is really difficult to know what the other person is going through. Even if we face similar storms, their impact will be different because it largely depends on the tools that each person has to deal with them.
For this reason, sometimes thinking that we are all in the same boat becomes an excuse not to go deeper, to continue seeing reality through our perspective. Assuming that pain and suffering is the same for everyone often means ignoring the uniqueness of others and, therefore, closing our eyes to their situation.
As a result, that phrase ends up promoting false empathy. In fact, it is no coincidence that it is also used for motivational purposes to ask people who are already at a disadvantage or even at the limit to make an extra effort.
With the excuse that “We are all in the same boat”, many states, governments and companies ask the most humble people to tighten their belts in times of crisis to “save” society or the business, so that these end bearing most of the weight while those who belong to the highest strata barely flinch.
Therefore, on some occasions the idea that we should all contribute the same becomes a twisted mechanism to generate guilt and preserve a deeply unequal system in which those who have the most and have been most favored are precisely those who make the least commitment and effort.
We are all in the same sea
The pandemic, perhaps like no other circumstance in our most recent history, revealed our deep differences. At that time, the writer Damien Barr published a poem in which he said “We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat. Your ship can sink and mine can’t. Or vice versa”.
During that same period, boxes containing medical aid from China arrived with a printed message as a reminder: “We are waves of the same sea.”
The truth is that “We are not in the same boat, we are in the same sea.” Subjected to its inclemencies, yes, but also in different circumstances. There are those who travel in comfortable cruise ships or yachts while others go in small boats. And there are even those who cling to a life preserver or try to swim with all their might, as psychologist Alejandra Castellanos pointed out.
Perhaps this idea is not so inspirational because it shows all the rawness of life, but it is undoubtedly a good starting point to take note of the point we are at and try to be more empathetic.
Where do we start?
A first step is to stop comparing our situation with that of others. Each person is different and his circumstances are too. Therefore, thinking that he will react exactly like us or that he is feeling the same as us is a fallacy that we must get rid of.
Some people are more agile at adjusting the sails to take advantage of the favorable winds and others find it more difficult. Some are in safe harbor and others are going through a great storm. Some move forward with the help of a motor and others have to row under their own power. We are all in the same sea, but we experience it differently.
Therefore, let’s stop assuming how others feel and start asking them how they really feel because only from authentic interest can the deep bond that unites and strengthens us emerge.
“Do not underestimate the pain of others if you have not felt it. Don’t judge their good life or condemn their bad decisions. Don’t judge those who lack, but neither do you judge those who overdo it. We are in different boats trying to survive. May each one navigate their path with respect, empathy and responsibility,” as Barr wrote.