My Uncle Tom always tells me if I’m not in debt and not afraid at least 50% of the time then I’m not doing enough with my life. Whether or not that’s true, it’s been a great comfort to me since I’ve been in debt for over a decade now, and have spent far more than 50% of that time afraid of all sorts of things.
Often what I fear and what I believe I fear are different things. I always thought I was afraid of swimming because I was afraid I’d lose control somehow and drown. I like to splash around (as long as my feet can touch the bottom) and I like being near the ocean, a lake, or a river. I’m not afraid of swimming; I’m afraid of being incapable of swimming; I’m afraid of uncertainty.
Think of all the things I can’t do because I can’t swim! 75% of the world’s surface is under water. If I never learn to swim, and never learn to scuba dive, I’ll miss out on exploring ¾ of the world. If I don’t learn to swim, I’ll never be able to do a triathlon. I’ll never learn how to surf. I’ll never get to be a trainer for a day at Sea World. In August, I decided I had to get out there and conquer this fear.
When I signed up for a beginning swimming class, I expected to meet an Olympic look-alike swim instructor who wouldn’t understand my lack of natural swimming ability. Instead, I met Karla, a woman who’s at once scrappy and incredibly supportive. She’s been teaching swimming for 50 years and proudly boasts, “I haven’t had a student fail yet.” My mother always said I was one-of-a-kind; let’s hope I don’t ruin Karla’s record. “I teach the terrified adult class, levels 1 and 2,” Karla said to me at registration. “How do I know which level I’m in?” I ask. “That all depends. How terrified are you?” “I get a little nervous in water more than 5 feet deep,” I say. “Yep, you’re a terrified adult, level 1. But don’t worry, I can fix that,” says Karla with her smiley, grandmotherly eyes. I’m to report to the AFC pool the following Wednesday, goggles and personal injury waiver in hand. “And don’t be late.”
On Wednesday, there’s a giant sign on the locker room door that reads: “Dear TERRIFIED ADULT swimmers (to be) – DO NOT SHOWER, we start swimming on dry land!?%#$!?? See you in the classroom by the pool. Karla”
I arrive at the classroom, and watch the swimmers intently. My heart’s racing. Karla’s right – I AM a terrified adult. Look at all these people, paddling along as if they were born to do this. It looks so easy for them. Why isn’t it easy for me? Why am I so scared?
At that time I didn’t realize that I had already done the scariest part of this process and I hadn’t even touched the water yet. I signed up to do something that I may very well fail at, all under the watchful eyes of dozens of other people enjoying the pool. I was risking public humiliation, failing to learn to do something that a five year old does without even thinking about it. I realized that ‘fessing up to fear is a lot harder than conquering the fear itself.
I’ve been working with Karla and six other terrified adult classmates for a few weeks now, and this past Wednesday for the first time in my life I swam properly, breast stroke, frog kick, with my head under water. I’ve graduated to what Karla calls the “moderately terrified adult class”, level 2. I took the sign off the locker room door from that first night of class and taped it up at home near my desk to remind me to face up to fear more often.
Our finest hour often comes out of moments of fear and disappointment. We’re conditioned to think that success, and doing things we’re naturally good at, brings out our best self. I disagree. Our best self comes shining through when we are most alive, and we are most alive when we have much to lose and yet we forge ahead anyway – head on into that fear and uncertainty. We emerge from the other side stronger, healthier people for having faced up to what frightens us. In the spirit of continuous (self) improvement, I’m making a pact to do things more often that scare the hell out of me.