How Do You Find Your Courage?

January EveningI just started swimming lessons at the local public pool. The bleachers are dotted with parents thumbing through their phones, and the pool foams with children in orange and green swim caps. In perfect formation, they churn the lanes (“You got quite a boil going there,” one teacher calls to the most energetic swimmer. “You trying to cook spaghetti?” The boy laughs like he’s been tickled). The 12-year-olds perform expert butterfly and back and crawl strokes. One of the swim instructors, a young black man who delights his grade-school students with his sense of humor, ends class with a race to the other side of the pool. And then he instructs them, one by one, to jump off the pool bottom. He slides his hands around the little waists and assists them, each in turn. And they pop out of the shallow end like leapfrogs. But giggling. Post-flight, he lands them safely on the concrete, where their parents smile and enfold them in warm towels.

And then it’s my turn. I ease myself down the ladder, nudging each foot carefully into the wedge in the pool’s side. I grip the handrails like they’re all that’s between me and certain death. And then I’m in the water. And I stand there like I don’t know what to do with it. Beside my classmate, who is at least half my age.

It is patently ridiculous in such company to be afraid of water.

But I am. Coughing and sputtering, I “thrash” as my teacher calls it. He’s a very kind, very patient man. And “thrash” is a very accurate word for what I do.

I also “psych myself out.” I laughed when he called me out on it. Yep. I thrash around and psych myself out for 30 minutes each week.

In three feet of water.

I don’t know why I have such a hard time in the water. I never experienced an accident involving water. I was never tormented by other children. I never came close to drowning. And I swam often until I was about 12. After that, we moved, and there simply wasn’t a pool anywhere nearby. And I never took lessons as a child.

When I entered the water again at 18 and then at 20, I was appalled to discover I was terrified.

And at 32, my first day on Lake Chelan started with a full-on panic attack in the water.

And what have I learned about terror from all this high drama?

That Nike has it right.

Just do it.

I’m serious. Nothing ever got easier by thinking about it.

The less I think, the better I manage. My technique was starting to look good tonight, the instructor said. “Until you start thinking about breathing.” He added. We smiled. Yep.

But still, an improvement.

How to conquer fear? Dive in. Again and again. And again. The moment that wave of fear hits you, draw a deep breath and dive into it.

After all, Mark Twain had it right: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear–not absence of fear.”

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