Monday, August 5, 2013

Floating vs. Flailing

In the summer I swim at the neighborhood pool for exercise. This is Houston; you’re going to be drenched whatever exercise you do, so it might as well be in a pool, where it’s at least cooler. I am not a strong swimmer; I never really got down the breathing rhythm. I need to breathe whenever I’m out of air, without needing to turn my head and wait for pouring water to get out of the way before I gasp. So, I mostly do a slow slow breaststroke with head up out of the water, or sidestroke (I know no one else does that, but I learned it back in the day as a precursor to learning lifesaving, which I fortunately haven’t had to use, because I need a lot more training for that). After I do a certain number of laps, I go into the deep end and tread water for a while. This is aerobic exercise for me, even if it’s never going to earn me any kind of award. I enjoy the sort of zen-like, meditative quality of it, now that I’m going to the pool without wild children.

I do have a special swimming talent—I can float. I mean, all I need to do is lie back and maybe occasionally move a foot or hand. It’s almost embarrassing how easy it is to float—I don’t even need an inflatable anything. I don’t actually do it very much, since I’m swimming in public.
I used to believe this was just a matter of learning well from the technique-minded Swedish lady who taught us kids swimming every summer for probably a decade when I was a kid. “You are such a beautiful swimmer,” she kept saying in her lovely accent, even though I spent the first summer clinging to the side with one hand and holding my nose with the other. And it took several years to build up courage to dive (I practiced in a basement spare bedroom, jumping from a chest of drawers onto the bed—don’t tell my mom.) My son Political Sphere managed these skills easily at age two with water wings, and didn’t need the flotation devices much beyond that. I had way too much fear in my way.
But my breaststroke became smooth, and actually was kind of beautiful in a very non-competitive kind of way. And I could float, even as a skinny child. At my age now, it looks like I have the advantage of a buoyant type. But that doesn’t explain why Mr. Spherical Model has never been able to float, either as a skinny kid, or as a more substantial very big man. In fact, no one in the family can just lie back and float effortlessly like I do. It still could be partly technique (I think they just allow too much bending in the middle, which leads to sinking). But without knowing the reasons, it seems like I have something of a special power.
At church Sunday a man in our congregation was talking about faith. He is a faithful person, has been all his life. But for him it is a matter of hard swimming to stay afloat, while for his wife it seems like effortless floating. When he feels that panicky feeling like he could be sinking, he talks with her, sees the ease of her powerful, calm faith, and is buoyed up.
I was reminded of a line from The Other Side of Heaven. It’s a memoir of John H. Groberg as a Mormon missionary to Tonga in the1950s. (It was made into a rather sweet little movie some years ago, with Christopher Gorham as Elder Groberg, and Anne Hathaway as the girl writing to him from back home.) In the opening chapter he tells of being shipwrecked between islands, which required some hours of swimming to shore. He says, “I have heard it said that sometimes the lord calms the storm, and sometimes He lets the storm rage and calms His child.”
Movie cover from here
My floating ability would help me survive longer on an open sea than without it, but there’s also a great benefit from strong, effective strokes in the right direction. The difficulty, then, is knowing the right direction.
So, I’m thinking of this metaphorically, the ability to float rather than flail, and also the ability to swim hard effective strokes rather than flail, and even flailing enough to keep a head up long enough for relief to come. Life presents so many ways these ideas could be applied. Let me use just one today, related to these Spherical Model ideas.
I think of my ability to float as similar to understanding with calmness what the principles are that lead to thriving—in civilization, economic prosperity, and political freedom. For some reason I can make the connections and see the overall vision and connections. Instead of near drowning in the raging ocean of life in this world, I’m floating in the “calm lagoon” on the shores of the “idyllic island” of human happiness people are looking for. It’s a matter of doing the right things in the right place.
There are others who, in their strength, swim strongly from one point to another, looking for the idyllic island shore. They use a lot of energy ending up on jutting rocks where there’s no safety or permanent respite from the raging sea. I have known some of these swimmers. They’re often young, often intellectual. But they won’t abide some simple direction like, “Straighten and arch your back, and otherwise relax and let the waves carry you to shore.” Or, in this case, “Grant government only limited powers to protect God-given rights; expect to solve economic problems with effective work combined with philanthropy; and live the Ten Commandments, and pass along morality through the family.” They reply, “Too simple. That can't be it. I’ll just keep swimming and looking.” At every jutting rock they stop and yell out, “I’ve found it; you should come here,” and then they dive back in and search some more.
Others, without either the calmness to live the “floating” principles or the strength to direct themselves through trial and error, simply flail and hope for a rescuer before they go under. I've known those as well.
For those of us who are enjoying the cool calm water of the “lagoon,” and the warm sand of the “idyllic island” shore, the challenge is to get the word out to those who are madly swimming through the surf in the wrong direction, or who are flailing around directionless. We need to put up more guiding lights upon the shore.

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