I am one of those weird adults that can’t swim. I love adventure. I love the outdoors. But I will never be that person dangling over a waterhole on a swinging vine, to let go into the ecstasy of a refreshing cannonball. I’m not sure what it was that just never clicked for me. My mom, an elementary school teacher, who spent about half of her childhood in water herself, did everything she could to help me learn the basics. She was a natural swimmer, a diver in high school, and a good teacher, but nothing stuck. My muscles would get all tense and I’d panic, making me a flailing, sinking mess. You could swim save your own life, right? You ask. You can float, right? I don’t know. I hope so. I really can’t swim. It’s hard to explain this to people.
I was that camp counselor that couldn’t pass the swim test designed for 6-year-olds. I was that teenager at pool parties that couldn’t go in the deep end. It was always a little embarrassing.
When I studied abroad in Greece, there was an opportunity to take a boat with the class out to some hot springs in the Aegean. I knew the hot springs were shallow, so I was excited to go. What I didn’t realize was that I’d have to swim several yards to get from the boat to the springs. Despite my friends’ reminders that it would be hard work to drown in the Aegean given its salt content, I couldn’t shake my fear. But as people dropped off of the boat one by one, I became a little jealous of their easy adventure, and I thought about testing out my skills.
For a little while, there were only two of us left in the boat, myself and one other student. I did not get along well with this girl. I never quite figured out why, but she just didn’t like me. But as we both sat there nervously looking at the water, it became clear that we actually had something in common, and after some nervous discussion about whether or not we’d try to tackle our fears, she jumped in.
I could either do the same or sit on the boat alone watching the class bathe in the hot springs without me. So I made sure there were some people around the boat, let them know that I wasn’t so sure about this, and jumped. I did great. For about 3 strokes. And then the panic came. I knew it was irrational. But that didn’t change the fact that it came and it tensed up all of my muscles, made it difficult to breath, and impossible to swim. I ended up at the hot springs on the arms of two people– my professor, and the student I didn’t get along with. Compared to me, she swam fine, and she actually talked me down to a calm place on our way to the springs. After this experience, she seemed to dislike me a little less, and I came to realize that being vulnerable, even in front of those to whom we want to appear strong and independent, can serve to break down barriers.
If you look up quotes about overcoming fears on the internet, you will get an idea of our culture’s obsession with individualism. Facing fears, it would seem, is something we need to do for ourselves and by ourselves, to prove something to ourselves. I think this is foolish. If we give ourselves the option of either overcoming our fears completely and independently or staying alone on the boat, we may never leave our place of observance. But if we give ourselves permission to lean on others, and go into our fears with vulnerability, we may find that we can live a fuller life as a result. We do not all have to be strong in everything on our own. Weaknesses force us to lean on others. People want to use their strengths. People want to help, to feel valuable. This builds connections, breaks down barriers. We do not need to isolate ourselves as islands of bravery. Instead, we can do better for ourselves and for our relationships if we simply acknowledge that we’re a part of a community, and that we work better and understand each other better when we are vulnerable to each other. And in time, fear may vanish because I faced it, not alone, but with others.
Any day now, I’m going to experience a lot of pain. I’m going to have to do some hard work. You could say that I have a little bit of fear as I face labor. But I am not as afraid as I could be. I know that I have surrounded myself with knowledgable, loving people, people that have my best interests in mind, and those of my baby. These people know that I plan on relying on them heavily when I go into labor. They know what I want for this experience, and they will be there to talk me down from a panic if they have to. There’s something beautiful about about knowing that we don’t have to do things alone. There is no pressure to completely banish all fear of something because, as desirable as that would be, it might not happen. But we can live life in such a way that we can participate in spite of fear, by leaning on those around us. If we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable, to be more in community with others, and to let others be strong for us when we are weak, we can accomplish so much more in life than if we try to be islands of bravery in the unknown sea of fear.
Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall.
– Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway