We sailed to Key West National Wildlife Refuge on a lovely day. The sun was playing on the deep green water, and a heavy sail was floating effortlessly in the air. In a couple of bright, short hours, we came to the destined spot of our snorkeling adventure. The crew quickly distributed snorkeling masks and wetsuits to everybody, and one by one, my fellow boat mates jumped overboard and followed the guide in their hunt for coral reef wonders.
I don’t snorkel and came along for the second half of the adventure: kayaking in a mangrove forest. But seeing everyone in the water made me think: why not go for a swim? I don’t have to snorkel in order to enjoy the water, do I? And so I cheerfully took a couple of steps down a wooden ladder on the side of the boat.
I am not a strong swimmer. Let me rephrase it. I am a bad swimmer, somehow stuck in an eternal beginner phase. But I enjoy swimming and have had some wonderful experiences in the water. A couple of years ago, I swam from a schooner to the beach in St. Martin, and I will always treasure the exhilarating feeling of freedom it gave me. Warm water, tender waves – and me, swimming clumsily but happily to the shore, with my husband to be beside me, encouraging me and cheering me on. I felt that I was flying, not swimming. Oh, how proud I was when I finally set foot on the sand that day.
I might have been seeking to recreate this joyful feeling… But, as I lowered myself on the ladder, I came to understood two things. First, the water was shockingly, breathtakingly cold. And second, and much worse, the waves were anything but tender. The ocean was rough, choppy, angry. I hesitated and lingered. Can I still do it? A couple of people from our group came back and climbed onto the boat, commenting on how rough the ocean was. In the meanwhile, I noticed that there was a small wooden platform attached to our boat, a bench of a kind that could be used to take a break or to climb back easily. I decided to use it as a transitional step between me ridiculously standing there wondering what to do and bravely jumping into unhospitable water. And so I clumsily climbed onto the bench and sat there. I was now halfway in water, and the icy waves were all around me. The bench was shaking violently, and for a time, I was anxious I might fall off. But after a while, I adjusted by gripping the roaps supporting the bench like my life depended on the intensity of my contact with them and considered my situation further.
The wind was getting stronger and the waves seemed higher and more unpredictable. I was chilled to the bone and deeply embarrassed by my strange, halfway position. On one hand, others were swimming and snorkeling – while I was clinging to my bench, making my humiliation apparent to everyone. I kept telling myself: “Come on, don’t think any more, just jump off, let go.” On another hand, my insecurity and fear were deepening. I was getting tired struggling with the waves as the bench was pounded against the side of the boat, I was freezing and I saw more and more people coming back to the boat. I was stuck in a purgatory of indecisiveness.
My husband came back after snorkeling, happy. He climbed onto the boat and asked me if I was still going in. If I only knew. A part of me hoped that the snorkeling part of the trip will be over soon and I won’t have to make any decision. I will be able to say “I was going to go for a swim, but ran out of time.”
Oh, how intensely I disliked myself in these minutes. How I wished I was a different person, the one whose pounding heart is not filled with fear. I continued this tiring, surprised dialogue with myself: “Am I not a brave person? Didn’t I do some things in my life that were considered brave? So why am I frozen now?” In the land of my fear, the ocean was infinitely deep and all kinds of progressively ridiculous worst case scenarios were playing out in my head.
… Yet another wave came and violently knocked me and my seat of fear against the boat. My eyes were fixated on every new wave, and the focus of my whole existence narrowed down to avoiding being knocked against the boat. My fingers were squeezing the safe haven of the rope roughness with such force that the skin on my fingers burned.
And then I let go. I opened my fingers and fell into the green depth in front of me. And it took hold of me, it took me into its strong, insistent embrace as if it was waiting for me. For a minute, I struggled with my new environment, but more than anything else, with terror that gripped me in its dark hand. But its power only lasted a moment.
Once I survived that first minute, I made a chain of amazing discoveries. The water was warm once I was submerged in it. The waves were not all that bad once I was in them. And, the most amazing discovery of all, once I was off the bench, I was not struggling nearly as much – as my body was moving with the waves, not fighting against them. It didn’t take nearly as much effort to swim as to cling to the bench. Miraculously, I was not afraid any more. My entire being merged with the ocean. I was a wave myself. I wasn’t afraid that I was going to drown. I wasn’t afraid of anything in the world. I was fearless. I was flying. Deep, glowing joy filled my soul, I moved between the waves like a manatee or a mermaid – take your pick. The darkness of uncertainty disappeared, and only light clouds were playing in the sky of my heart. Oh, I was free. I waved at my husband. He didn’t know the depth of fear I overcame to detach myself from that seat of indecisiveness, but he was happy for me.
… When I got out of the water, I was shivering, and I was infinitely happy. I grabbed a stripy towel (green and white, as if someone snatched stripes of ocean and clouds) and felt its comforting, drying touch. And then I just sat on the boat, squinting into the sun, cherishing the moment, being deeply happy, knowing I overcame the fear.
What is fear anyway and why is it sent to us? And what is it that we overcome when we overcome fear? Maybe, just maybe – when we overcome fear and let go, we trust something bigger than ourselves to take care of us: of our little, frail, oh so mortal bodies, of our hearts, so small, beating so anxiously. Maybe letting go of fear simply means acknowledging that we are not self-reliant, not self-sufficient… but also trusting that we are not alone. Perhaps in that rests the unique beauty of humankind. We need to believe that there is Someone waiting to catch us when we step off the bench. We need to believe that there is Someone between the little us and the fury of the ocean. The funny thing is, once we take this leap, we are destined to discover that we, ourselves, imagined most of that fury.