As longtime readers might recall, I have a bit of a hot-and-cold relationship with swimming.
Swimming freestyle scared me as a kid. Nevertheless, swimming has always seemed like the kind of thing I could love, so I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last five years learning Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion approach to swimming. In addition to helping me swim better, it was also my introduction to kaizen, a learning philosophy that emphasizes specific, hyper-focused continuous improvement. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Over these last few years, I’ve made enough progress that I now appreciate swimming and from time to time I even have good swims. However, swimming remains low on my list of priorities, so my progress has been slow.
That said, I can now work my way through a mile in the pool reasonably well and with limited agita—even if being truly relaxed in the water eludes me most days.
Nevertheless, quarantine has been a chance to go deep in all sorts of physical activity, and recently I had the chance to spend a week by a big, beautiful lake in Maine. The only problem was that open water swimming still gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Given this backdrop, and as a nod to safety, when I have the chance to swim in this massive lake, I decide the best approach is to swim laps to a buoy that is about 40 meters from the shore.
I dive in, imagining that soon I be cutting through this pristine lake gracefully.
Then I put my head in the water. It’s nearly pitch black. I cannot see the bottom and I have no idea where I am or how far I away I am from the buoy.
The old narrative in my head kicks in. “This is scary, and I can’t do this. How much longer until I get to the buoy? Should I pick up my head or swim some more? I can’t see, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how much progress I’ve made or how far I still need to go!”
I am unmoored. The sensory experience nearly overtakes me.
And yet, if you pulled back the camera, what you see looks nothing like what’s going through my head. I am swimming, just as I always do. I’m making progress to and from the buoy. I’m not going particularly straight, but it’s not too bad. Sometimes a wake bounces me, splashing some water in my mouth. Mostly I’m swimming the way I always do.
So which view is the right one, the real one? Is it the one in my head, or the one you’d see from the shore?
What saves me from throwing in the towel is that I remembered the order of operations inside my head: first I have feelings and emotions, then I make sense of them with the story I tell.
The feelings I’m experiencing: disorientation due to darkness, no sense of where I am, of whether I am stuck or making progress.
The emotions I feel: fear and panic.
The story I tell myself: this will never work, I am failing, I should give up.
This pandemic is a bit like those black waters. Stuck at home, we can lose our sense of place, of progress. It’s harder to tell where we are and where we are going. The clarity of what it feels like to go from point A to B and back again has been yanked away from us.
We feel unmoored.
This feeling results in emotions.
These emotions result in a story about what we can and cannot do.
Thankfully, in the water, I had put in enough work before plunging into that lake that I know how to swim reasonably well. I kept the initial panic at bay by talking myself down from the ledge (“Nothing, objectively is wrong, even though I feel afraid. This is not that different from what I do in the pool. I am OK.”). But mostly what I do is continue to swim. Stroke by stroke, breath by breath, I keep on doing the thing I had set out to do. The story my mind wants to create rattles along in the background. I let it be while I continue to do.
In the end, the story never vanishes, but it also doesn’t win. I swim with fear until I swim with less fear until, for at least some bits, I just swim.
These are, objectively, scary times for too many reasons.
The more we believe the worst stories our mind tells us—stories it creates to make sense of our feelings and emotions—the more power we give to those stories.
Rather than try to figure out, analyze, or beat back those stories, we often are better served by putting our heads down and doing the work we set out to do.
The work deserves that much, as do the people it serves.
Remember, courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is continuing to act despite feeling fear.