Do you remember when you learned how to swim?
As a child, many of my friends belonged to a community pool with yearly membership fees, and I would hear their stories of splashing around or diving in the deep end. I would listen enviously, wishing that I could “go to the pool” to experience all the fun.
A few of my friends had pools in their backyards, but it was rare to receive an invitation to join in. My only access to a swimming pool was when we went to visit extended family in North Carolina for a weekend or two in the summer.
Because of such limited access, I didn’t learn how to swim until I was a teenager. I never had formal swim lessons. I would stay in the shallow end, practicing my handstands or seeing how long I could hold my breath under water. If I wanted to go to the opposite side of the pool, I wore an inflatable ring around my middle that kept me afloat. On the few occasions where I felt brave, I would hold a death grip on the rounded concrete sides of the pool, inching my way to the point where I couldn’t touch the bottom, then as my heart began to pound harder in my chest, I would quickly scamper back, hand-over-hand, to the safety of the shallow end.
I preferred safety over danger.
I chose to stand, not sink.
It was during one of these trips that everything changed. I was thirteen years old, splashing around in the shallow end, when I spotted a beach ball sitting in a lounge chair at the end of the pool, near the diving board. I got out of the pool, dripping wet in the hot sun, and walked along the outside edge of the pool. There were several family members standing nearby, chatting and laughing. One turned to me as I passed and thought it would be funny to push me into the deep end. “It’s time you learned how to swim! You’re a teenager now!”
I remember the instant panic as I lost my balance and splashed awkwardly into the pool. The chlorinated water burned my open eyes and I felt myself sinking lower and lower. In shock, my body was slow to respond. I didn’t splash. I didn’t scream. I just sank.
I was lucky. I didn’t drown. Instinct kicked in as the shock subsided and I clawed my way through the water to eventually touch the edge of the pool, my head finally breaking through the surface, gasping for air.
Not a single person noticed my struggle to survive.
Everyone was still standing and chatting near the pool, oblivious to my near-death encounter. Even the person who pushed me in had lost interest in seeing what happened next, already turned away to chat with someone else.
It was as if I had become invisible to all.
Decades later, I recounted this memory to my mom and she stared at me with a mixture of shock and horror in her eyes. “When did this happen?” she asked incredulously. “Where was I?” In her disbelief, she couldn’t fathom being unaware of such an awful event happening right in her presence.
She was there.
She just didn’t see me in my moment of despair.
How many times have we been near someone, but missed signs that they were drowning? Do we notice others sinking or struggling to stay afloat? Are we taking time to see the people around us – truly see them – or are we just running from start to finish in our own daily race of life?
This past week I’ve pondered those questions and made a deliberate attempt to slow down and connect with those around me. I’ve taken an extra moment or two in my conversations to ask coworkers, friends, and family specific questions about things that matter in their lives: children, pets, passions, family events. When I see that sparkle in their eyes as they talk about things they love – even if only for a moment – I know that it was important to remind them of things that matter.
We all have a need to be noticed. To be appreciated. To be valued. When the weight of the world is on our shoulders pushing us deeper into despair, it’s difficult to see the light above, much less let go of the baggage we carry and continue to add day by day. Sometimes we simply can’t do it alone.
We need someone to show us how to swim.
If you are reading this post today and feel like I did so many years ago, paralyzed by fear and unable to move fast enough, please know that you are going to make it back to the surface.
Seriously. You will! It might be messy and it might take some time, but you do not have to sink to the bottom simply because life has caught you by surprise and thrown you in a tailspin.
Trust your instincts.
Seek the light.
Don’t give up.
For some, it might mean going to bed earlier or carving out time in the day for a little self-care. For others, it may be letting go of one task to complete another. (Or, like me, you might have to remove several tasks from that to-do list and give yourself permission to breathe again!)
Maybe you need to chat with a friend. Maybe you need to cry. Maybe you need to take a long drive down a winding road with the windows down and the radio up.
You do whatever you need to do to stay afloat, my friend. Whatever it takes.
We are all in this together.
Let’s help each other swim.