Ever since I saw the movie “JAWS” at our local cinema, I’ve been afraid to swim in the ocean. We lived in Fort Lauderdale when the thriller first came out and prior to learning about the Great White shark, I’d loved playing in the sea water and bopping in the waves. But, from that point on, let’s just say, I got good at building sand castles.
As I grew, I continued hearing about the dangers of the sea and decided pools were far better for paddling about on a hot day. But as an adult, I found myself drawn to that scene – to the ocean and it’s inhabitants. I took vacations to the beach, not the mountains. I even worked a few years in the Marine Mammal Department at our local zoo training seals, sea lions and dolphins. I learned to SCUBA and dove in the animals’ pools – all the while harboring a deep dark secret that I couldn’t really swim.
You know, its natural for us to want to avoid the things we think will harm us. We steer clear; we hang out in the shallows where we think we’re safe. Self-preservation kicks us into overdrive when our lives are actually threatened, but it can also prevent us from actualizing our dreams when it isn’t really needed.
The truth is, perceived threats are NOT “lurking all around us,” they are mostly in our minds – in the programs we re-run from the past. On top of those past experiences, we’re continually fed fear propaganda straight from the media’s teat, and the trouble is, we like it! Easy access to information makes it seem like EVERY time a plane takes off, chances are high it will be lost somewhere over the ocean, or each time someone swims in the ocean, a shark attack is imminent. Or that if you take your child to the zoo, their being attacked by a dangerous animal is highly likely. We hear about tragedy all the time, and fear gives us something easy to focus on when life feels boring. We hear much more about the worst that can happen than about the gazillions of times when everything turns out perfectly all right.
In my case, I wanted to love and appreciate the ocean, but I was too afraid. I spent the first fifty years of my life thinking I just wasn’t a good swimmer and that the ocean was a dangerous place. In order to really swim in the ocean, I would need to get out past the waves and surf where the water is calmer – the very same place, (if you remember the film) where the Great White “JAWS” took it’s first victim. To be on the safe side, I limited myself to knee-deep water only.
But with another tropical Spring break vacation looming, I became determined to learn how to swim! First came the YouTube videos explaining how to breath between strokes. I bought a pair of goggles so I could keep my eyes open underwater and a swim cap to keep hair out of my face. This was serious business! I headed to the gym 3-4 days a week to practice. But the rhythm of stroke and breath eluded me. I had to stop a lot and catch my breath; water went up my nose more than once. But I kept at it, believing it was possible to learn.
Then one day, as if out of nowhere, I fell into a rhythm completely unfamiliar, but completely comfortable. I was swimming and breathing between strokes without stopping – without panic. It was like a miracle – not something I expected after only three weeks of trying. For years I believed I couldn’t swim, but there I was swimming like I knew what I was doing. Not that I did, really, but with the help of online advice, I managed to become a stronger swimmer than I’d ever been before. I hoped I’d be able to swim in the ocean…for real.
My first attempt, sadly, was a total bust! I was battered by the waves and salt water stung my eyes, burning…I took a lot of water up my nose and the undertow about took my swimsuit bottoms. Surfers were having a good day, but this lone “swimmer” was not. The waves were ferocious.
The next day, I took my goggles along for my second attempt. With my eyes protected, I felt braver. I picked a spot to the left of where a half dozen surfers waited for their next wave. I waded out through the shallows. At waist deep, I lifted my feet and reached with my right arm to stroke into the deep waters beyond the last wave. Right at that moment a surfer leaned into a wave and stood up on his board. He was heading right for me. I gulped, hoping he would/could maneuver that board. He quickly veered left and missed my head by a couple of feet. A wave filled my nose with saltwater. It stung.
My heart raced from the near miss. I tried to slow my breathing down, but that was next to impossible. I didn’t want to be still for too long (for fear something would get me) so I set off swimming parallel to the waves that were now between me and the shoreline. I was out there doing it – the very thing I’d been afraid of most of my life. I was breathing a hundred miles an hour and water was going up my nose because of it, but I was swimming in the ocean!
It wasn’t a long swim, maybe ten minutes, but I faced the sharks, the Man o’ Wars, the barracudas, stingrays and all the other terrible things lurking in the deep dark sea – and I survived.
We survive our greatest fears the moment we decide not to believe them. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. People will still tell scary stories and issue words of caution, but it’s up to you to listen, or not. Getting past our fears isn’t easy. Sometimes it takes preparing yourself like learning to swim, and other times it just requires you to believe more in the “perfectly all right” than the worst case scenario. We need to focus on the thousands of planes that land safely everyday, the millions of swimmers, surfers and sail boarders who use the ocean as a playground every year and a lifetime of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who visit the zoo and live to take their own children there.
If we want to embrace life fully, we need to get tragedy out of our plans and cultivate an awareness that life is actually for us, and not against us. There isn’t anything out there “waiting” to hurt us. Not that nothing bad ever happens, but why be the one waiting?
Have you managed to overcome a long held fear? How did you do it?