Afraid of the Dark

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.

The Kick

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.