The big swim

After our baby’s recent Kasai procedure (liver duct bypass surgery), my wife and I are optimistic about her chances of full recovery. While we love seeing Nat as her active and cheerful self these days, we also know that there’s a strong likelihood that she will soon need a liver transplant. While most people would look upon this as a catastrophic, I feel a sense of serenity. It’s as if I waded out into a violent surf, was knocked down, tossed around pulled out into the calm beyond the breaking waves, where I can now contemplate the nature of the ocean without drowning in it.

The Nat in a Hat
The Nat in a Hat

It’s so easy to be caught up in the chaotic forces of our own emotions that we exhaust ourselves struggling against them. There is a tidal push-pull of fear and desire that dominates most of our life; what we want, what we don’t want, what we fear will happen, what we fear won’t happen. This powerful ebb and flow is just at the edge of our vast unconscious minds, but it controls most of our conscious thought.

Past this undertow, is a tranquility that let’s us be in the experience without having to try and control it. Being out of control can be scary, because we are allowing ourselves to give up struggling. And just as when we learn to swim, struggling is all we know. What we fear most is the thought of giving up the struggle. But what we find is that the stillness of our natural buoyancy comes not from struggling, but from relaxing. In fact, the more we struggle, the less relaxed we are, which makes us need to struggle more.

The cruel joke that is being played on people by the self-improvement industry is all about how to struggle faster, struggle more efficiently, and struggle your way to the top. Most have become so addicted to this feeling, that relaxation is just something people allow themselves as a brief respite from struggling. To struggle less would feel like failure.

I’m a strong swimmer and was red cross advanced water safety instructor for many years when I lifeguarded at Lake Michigan. This was probably one of the best jobs in the world, because the water was too cold for people to swim except for about a 72 hour period that fell around Labor Day weekend, so I just hung out with my laid-back fellow guards, went for runs on the beach, chatted up girls and enjoyed long lunches from the grill, sitting peacefully under the pier. So it was ironic that I nearly drowned in an undertow while swimming in the Indian Ocean off the Southern coast of Sri Lanka in 1986.

Before I knew it, I was out about 100 yards, a long way from my student group on the beach. I was able to make some progress by swimming on a diagonal to the surging current, but was heading for an outcropping of gigantic sharp rocks. As I neared the shore, the surf began to break over me and churned me until I couldn’t catch a breath. In my panic, I lost my orientation and through the pounding waves, began to see my life in rapid flashbacks. Completely out of air, I couldn’t struggle anymore and somehow, just put my feet down to find myself in 4 feet of water, wading distance to the shore.

In a similar panic, when I heard Nat’s pediatrician talk about her condition, and read the statistical probability of my her requiring a liver transplant, I realized after digging through all the clothes pockets in my wardrobe that I didn’t have the half-million dollars to pay for it. Her health insurance doesn’t cover it and our savings would about pay for the cost of a dental cleaning. Thus began the downward spiral of increasingly bleak “What if’s?”, in which the worst possible scenario surfaced again and again, just long enough to gulp for air.

In times like these, we’re so consumed by our own anxiety that we fail to see the resources that are immediately available to us. By simply asking ourselves, “Where is the evidence that the worst will happen?” we find that the answer is always, “There is none.” There is no evidence that this has to be the end of everything, that things won’t ever be as good, or that we will never recover. When we realize that it’s our own exhausting struggle for control dragging us under, new choices appear to us. When we allow ourselves to give up this control, it’s like waking up to find ourselves swimming peacefully in an ocean of possibility.

“The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” – Aung San Suu Kyi