While my father did have my mental and intellectual well being at heart, he was certainly careless with other aspects of my formative development. It was the quinquennial of my childhood life and we were on a family vacation in Lake Tahoe, California. I loved the water. It had a seductive power over me at a very early age. It was a mysterious place where countless indescribably frightful creatures lurked, and also a mystical entity by whom fun was magically conjured for all who dared to embrace her surly grip. Also, a place where death could appear more quickly than those who succumbed clearly ever imagined.
I am not sure what it was that intensified my focus on mortality at such a young age, but perhaps it was largely due to my father’s lack of paternal wisdom in so many areas. For his part, I believe he meant well. Either that or he just didn’t care. It is so hard to tell which, and even asking him about it now reveals no epiphanic truth I can rest on for a deeper understanding. Maybe it was the ghost of his own father reverberating through familial DNA to reach out in a vile attempt destroy his son’s progeny, as if the damage he caused my father wasn’t enough. Maybe it was the culture of redneckism my father was cultivated in, that he tried so desperately to disidentify with. Whatever it was, it all culminated in this phrase “Sink or swim son, the choice is yours!” Those words hit my ears a mere second prior to the frigid water of Lake Tahoe stabbing a thousand knives into my 5 year old skin.
Without having very much life experience to flash before my eyes, that cliché was quickly out of the way and I wasn’t distracted from the task at hand. I could see the dock that was my ultimate and only salvation given the facts surrounding my current predicament. The very same dock where only moments earlier I was pondering how long it would be before I could frolic independently in this beautiful expanse of foreboding liquid joy. With that question now answered unsatisfactorily, it was time to get on with continuing to live. That was all that mattered. I had no desire to sink into the blackness that I could only relate to what happens nightly in the non-dreaming stages of sleep. In those times I simply ceased to exist. Perhaps I was an early developing narcissist that could not imagine a world without me in it, or my id had provided me with an overwhelmingly healthy instinct for self preservation. Either way, this was NOT how I saw myself ceasing to be myself!
I began to flail in a futile attempt to mimic what I presumed swimming was. It was in this moment that I learned something critical about me that I would carry throughout life. Evaluate, measure, modify, improve. I had an uncanny ability to EMMI very quickly, and from a very early age. Discerning that I must not have previously comprehended something correctly about arm motions in swimming, I rapidly realized that my hands could push against the water. Oh, and so could my feet! In a flash I remembered Bud and Sandy from Flipper, and how on occasion they would use… well… flippers on their feet. My feet were the key. I donned imaginary flippers and kicked my way to the safety of the previously unreachable dock. From that day until this, I have been almost as comfortable in the water as out!
From the Buoy to the Shore
Today I was talking with my very best friend in the universe, and we were discussing my progress in personal growth. This person knows me better than anyone ever has (times a million), and we were talking about what it takes to genuinely change and grow. She has observed some major changes in key areas of my life and I was sharing with her an analogy of what I saw happening to me in this process.
In my past, I have had so many repeats of the exact behavior and even configuration when it comes to relationships. I end one marriage, and almost before I’ve changed the sheets, I am into the next one. I know… it’s obvious to me too now. But here is the analogy. I am like a person that doesn’t swim very well that is 50 yards off shore, and I am clinging to a buoy. The buoy is chained to the bottom of the lake or ocean and it isn’t going anywhere. It is keeping me from drowning, but that is all. I can’t move. I can’t change my scenery. I can’t make any form of progress. But I can see the shore. It is only 50 yards away, and if I could just let go of the buoy, and swim my very best, I would most likely make it safely to shore. But I am very comfortable with the safe feeling this buoy gives me.
The thing that has paralyzed me into not swimming to shore (or making a critical change), was the comfort and familiarity with my particular buoy (dysfunction). It was clearly the Devil I know. The shore wasn’t the Devil I don’t know, but from where I was on the buoy, it might as well have been. So I become frozen into inaction. Nothing changed. Recently though, I decided it was time to let go of the buoy and swim for my life. It threw me headlong into the memory of my “sink or swim” moment from childhood. Now, just as then, I made it to shore. From the shore I can see so much freedom. I can go places I have never been. I can explore! I can take on new challenges and finally join and accomplish my purpose here. Standing here on the shore, it saddens me that it took me this long to be willing to let go. I know that it was fear that kept me from making meaningful and persistent changes. But it is the willingness to swim despite the fear that gives me the true power to change. So, when given the choice to “sink or swim?” I choose to swim!