Gurus in Life Preservers

Maybe it’s the nearly four feet of snow that is making me long for summer and a swim in a lake. But my mind keeps going back to the lake at a camp where I taught swimming lessons. And mostly I want to tell you about four girls who have been my gurus for the past couple of weeks. It was a wonderful summer for so many reasons, but nearly thirty years later, I hang on to the lessons that those girls taught me about courage and trust and perseverance.

I had one group of African-American teenage girls from inner city Newark who had never been swimming before. And certainly never swam in a lake (“EEEEW there are fish in there! They are going to bite me!”) They stated from the outset that they were NEVER going to go in. But swim lessons were basically mandatory, so they had to come to the lake anyway, so the four of them humored me and came to the lake, but refused to wear suits and refused to get in.

So I called their bluff and I brought down a giant mixing bowl from the kitchen, filled it with lake water. We had our lesson on the dock so they could learn to blow bubbles and do the rhythmic breathing required of the crawl stroke right there in the mixing bowl. They thought it was hilarious and played along. Then they practiced just dangling their legs in. When it was agreed that they could get in the water, they said they weren’t getting in the water unless they could do something. And that was, they each got two life preservers, and put both of them on. And two kickboards. And for the next couple of days they just stood in the water, brave enough to stand waist deep, wearing their life preservers and holding their kickboards. They didn’t care what they looked like. They didn’t care that they were the only ones with that much equipment at the waterfront. They just did what they needed to do. It was slow and incremental over the two weeks that they were there. Being brave enough to dunk their whole body in. Brave enough to pick their feet off the ground. And brave enough, eventually, to take the life preservers off and try swimming. And they did it. All of them passed the Red Cross Beginner’s test that session.

I have never forgotten this because I am still in awe about how brave they were to try something that they were so frightened of, and how smart they were to ask for what would allow them to feel safe enough to try. I have never forgotten their willingness to learn something that was so difficult for them and to keep at it. To be willing to be a beginner at something that all of their peers could already do. To decide that learning was more important than saving face.  And their genius at knowing themselves well enough and listening to themselves about their own incremental steps.

Maya Angelou used to say that we are never alone. That wherever we go and whatever we do we can bring others with us. We can bring ancestors, teachers, loved ones with us. Of my many inner teachers and gurus I pull on, these girls hold a particularly revered spot. I pull on them whenever I need compassion for myself or someone else who is up against a big fear. Up against something they wish they could do, but can’t. Something everyone else seems to do, but you can’t. They are the perfect visual reminder of what it takes to bravely overcome your fears—you get interested in taking on the challenge, you start as small as you possibly can, you oversupport yourself, and you stay with it day in and day out.

And this wisdom from them is especially useful when you are learning to dive in to emotions you find frightening. Almost everyone has an emotion that is more difficult for them than the others and if you have experienced trauma, the emotions can feel louder and more extreme. They can have an all-or-nothing quality not unlike how my camper girls saw the lake water: either I am safe on the dock or I will drown in the water. There is no middle ground.

The lake and swimming in it are intertwined. The girls were afraid of the lake and they hadn’t learned to swim. And I could say the same about my experience. My emotion and the way I protect myself from my emotions are also intertwined. It’s a big lake of emotion and I am still learning how to swim in them.

The key to stretching your capacity with difficult emotions is to do exactly what those girls did: Find the smallest possible increment to feel it. And stay with that until you are ready to move on.

What I have found helpful is the sheer repetition of talking about it: Sometimes even just saying the same sentence again. Even if it feels silly. Even if it is the emotional equivalent of blowing bubbles in a big bowl. Or sometimes if it gets to be too much. Stopping the conversation. Getting out of the water for a moment. And then dangling my feet in the water, heading back in to the conversation slowly. This practice of feeling something, pulling away from it, and heading back to it helps you reestablish a sense of control again.

Keeping those girls in mind helped me see what I needed to do. These past couple of weeks I have struggled with disappointment—an emotion I detest. I had the mistaken notion that ‘good disappointment’ looked like “Oh well.” As in, “Oh well, it didn’t work out.” But, in fact, this isn’t good disappointment, it’s indifference. This isn’t swimming with the emotion. This is staying on shore. What I needed to do was figure out what my life preservers were and stand knee deep in the emotion. Not drown in it. But just stand in it. Bravely. Knowing I had what I needed to be safe. And having the hope one day of freely splashing around.

The thing is you don’t have to swim perfectly to have a sense of accomplishment. The whole experience gives you pieces of that feeling. Every day those girls came to the waterfront—they tried something new, and they laughed, and they met a part of themselves they hadn’t met before. This is really what it is all about. You become bigger each time you meet a new part of yourself. You don’t make the difficult emotion smaller. You make yourself bigger. You meet parts of yourself you haven’t met before.  The lake didn’t change. The girls did. I didn’t master disappointment this week. But I ventured into deeper water than I had before without going under. I met parts of myself I hadn’t met before. And so what if I am still holding a kickboard as I stand in the water. It means I am closer to swimming than I was before.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015