I’ve started swimming again.
To be more accurate, I started a year ago, dipping into the pool because the tendinitis in my right arm was so bad that it hurt to hold a coffee cup, let alone a racquet.
I’d avoided swimming for decades. As a child, for reasons I can’t explain, swimming terrified me. I was the kid who cried before every swimming lesson, tears streaming down my face while I stood waiting to be picked up each summer Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.
No surprise, then, that 30 years later, despite being physically active, 25 meters of freestyle left me clutching the side of the pool, panting for breath. Something about having my head in the water and needing to breathe to one side brought me back to Beginner Swimming lessons and the dreaded 25 meters of freestyle I had to swim to pass the test.
Nothing like an injury to get me to face my fears. Swimming was the only activity that eased the shooting pain in my injured right arm, relaxing the muscles and stretching out the tendons. That was motivation enough.
Over the course of last summer, I willed myself into the water, swimming 50 meters, then 100, then further. While I did eventually push through to being able to swim a few hundred yards, that old underlying panic still lurked. It was a feeling that at any moment I could devolve into a terrified kid gasping for breath.
(By way of contrast, my wife loves the water. She would describe her Zen-like experience swimming laps, and I’d listen, perplexed. To me, “ease” and swimming mixed like oil and water.)
At the start of this summer, I realized that, despite the progress I made last year, much of my effort and willpower had been taking me in the wrong direction: if I’m trying to work through a fear, then more effort and strain aren’t the right tools to use. This summer, I’ve been trying to figure out where that old panic comes from, and how it’s affecting what I do in the water.
What I’ve recently discovered is that my fear of not being able to breathe is manifesting in every stroke I take. Each stroke, I do a frantic flutter kick and I tense up my whole body in a misguided attempt to lift my full head (and half my torso, it seems) out of the water. That kick, that tensing up, it’s that 30-year-old terror resurfacing to sabotage my stroke and leave me exhausted.
I find it so tempting to muscle my way through these sorts of situations – not just in the water. Wouldn’t it be nice if fear were something we could overpower and wrestle to the ground?
I can’t, directly, beat back the fear, but I can change what I do in the water. I can focus on the behavior that the fear has created – in this case, the kick. So, as I swim laps, I focus on kicking less, on tensing up less, on straining less, and as I change what I’m doing with my body, over time, a bit of ease begins to seep in.
We discover this same pattern so often if we’re willing to look for it. We waste energy on things that feed on the energy we give them: the energy we put into stalling before sitting down to work; the energy we put into maintaining an image of strength and confidence for those around us; the energy we put into protecting someone who can stand on their own two feet; the energy we put into the decades-old stories someone put into our heads that we’ve never let go.
Most of the time, this energy comes from a place of fear or self-preservation. These fears lace themselves through our days and through our relationships. If left unexamined and unaddressed, they exhaust us, draining our mental and physical faculties and insulating us from what our experience could be.
We don’t overcome fear with more effort or by straining more.
We overcome fear by looking back to the source, seeing it clearly and, from a place of calm and clarity, discovering that we can behave differently and that, when we do, those old fears no longer have the power to hold us.