Three Sheets to the Wind: Cognitive Flexibility and Self-Control

I’ve been having nightmares recently. Mercifully, I haven’t remembered what they’re about — but something in my subconscious must be working through a mysterious source of unhappiness.

After last night’s nightmare, I fell back to sleep and dreamed about a sailboat with its rigging fixed in place. The ropes (“sheets”) that are attached to the free corners (“clews”) of the sails were permanently clamped into place, along the edge of the boat.

parts of a boat
(Image Source)

The mainsail couldn’t be let out to catch the wind just right. Neither could the mainsail be tightened, to prepare for swinging it across the boat, letting the wind fill the opposite side of the sail, so the boat could move ahead at a different angle (“tack”).

The little jib sail in front was completely useless for adjusting direction.



(Image Source)

Like many other creative types, my ideas tend to come in windstorms. During that time, I make plans for the way the rest of my life is going to go. But when the winds change a little, I feel like I’ve failed if I have to turn the mainsail about, taking a different angle into the wind.

“Cognitive flexibility” is a psychological term that “refers to the mental ability to adjust thinking or attention in response to changing goals and/or environmental stimuli.”

I struggle with cognitive flexibility. In fact, it might be my “mysterious source of unhappiness.”

“The wind blows all around us as if it has a will of its own; we feel and hear it, but we do not understand where it has come from or where it will end up. Life in the Spirit is as if it were the wind of God.” (John 3:8 VOICE)

“the fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

Maybe “flexibility” isn’t as antithetical to self-control as it seems; maybe it’s the key — and maybe “routines” and “plans” aren’t always so synonymous with self-control.

“When you are making your general [creative] resolutions and deciding on your plans of campaign . . .

once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome.

Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.”

(William James, On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men. The Gospel of Relaxation. 1911. Source.)

In sailing terminology, if a person completely unclamped all the ropes (“sheets”), the boat would be at the mercy of the wind . . .

hence, “three sheets to the wind” to refer to someone who is drunk.

When sailing, the main thing is to watch the sails.

Have they caught the wind well? Time to ease them out a little and enjoy skipping across the waves.

If they’ve gone slack, “luffing” in the wind, it’s time to pull them tight until they find the wind again.

If the wind has taken the boat as far as it should go in one direction, it’s completely normal to “come about.” — Pull the mainsail tight, swing the boom across the boat, let the opposite side of the sail catch the wind, and ease the sail out again.

Same wind, different angle into the wind.

To borrow from a different sport, “tacking” is like zig-zagging down a mountain on skis. The better the skier gets at switching directions, the more quickly, easily, and bruise-free she makes it down the slope.

In other words, “adjust thinking or attention in response to changing goals and/or environmental stimuli”. Exercise cognitive flexibility.

As I was recording my dream this morning, my oldest son came upstairs:

Mom! I had a dream last night! It was about a maze made out of gingerbread! One person got to the center of the maze, and there was a pole there that held the whole maze up. That person pushed over the pole, and the whole maze crashed down. Did you have a dream, Mom? What was your dream?”

The moral: Whatever else you do, don’t mess with the center mast that holds up the sails and keeps them firmly attached to the boat!

“You who try to sail in will be unable, as if your lines are limp, your mast is wobbly, and your sails are furled.” (Isaiah 33:23a VOICE)

“Would all of you throw me down — this leaning wall, this tottering fence? . . . my soul, find rest in God . . . he is my fortress, I will not be shaken . . . God is our refuge.” (Psalm 62:3-8)

“Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters . . . he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away.

They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end.

Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.

Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love.”

(Psalm 107:23-31)

2 Responses to “Three Sheets to the Wind: Cognitive Flexibility and Self-Control”
  1. Judy says:

    Pretty cool, Debbie. God is so good to keep showing us, to keep us heading into the wind. A sailor is continuing to make adjustments all the time, and the picture you got is a good one.