Floating freely in a sea of love

Some lessons of learning how to swim as an older adult

BY ROSS SMILLIE

When I was a young adult, I worked a lot as a swimming instructor and lifeguard. I taught all kinds of swimmers, but the ones I remember the best were the ones in the adult non-swimmers classes. These were the people who had decided, sometimes quite late in life they should learn to swim.

I remember one woman in particular who had a real phobia about deep water. Her father had been a champion swimmer, she told me, as she clung fiercely to the edge of the pool, and he decided the way to teach her to swim was to take her on his shoulders out into deep water and drop her there. She very nearly drowned, she said, and the trauma of that experience had kept her from learning to swim for decades.

But in her 60s she decided it was time, and so she came regularly to the adult non-swimmers class. Her goal was to learn to float in deep water. At first all she could do was to stand on the bottom in the shallow end. Slowly, she learned to lean back, one hand on the side of the pool, and lift her feet off the bottom for a brief period, until her fear overcame her and she tensed up and started to sink, and had to stand up. But the periods she floated got slightly longer and longer. Then she started making her way, slowly, carefully into the deep end. At first, all she could do was go around the edge of the pool, hanging tightly to the side, trying to manage the voices in her head that kept telling her the deep water was going to suck her down and not let her go. She was very possibly the most courageous person I have ever met, because she was determined to face her fears and overcome them. And she did. It took her months, but she did it. The first time she was able to float on her back in deep water, she beamed this wonderful smile, as proud and pleased as if she had won an Olympic medal or a Nobel Prize.

Some people compare faith to floating in deep water. If you are tense and struggle, then you will sink, but if you relax and trust, you will float. This kind of trust is not a naive belief that nothing bad will ever happen. Rather it is a deep trust that whatever happens, there is a loving presence who will support us and uphold us. It is a faith that is able to endure crucifixion because of the promise of resurrection. People who see the world as hostile or cold and therefore cannot trust are constantly anxious, unable to be vulnerable or take risks; they constantly feel insecure and put up barriers and walls to protect themselves.

Those who can trust at a deep level are able to take risks, to offer themselves in service and to endure the most difficult circumstances in life. They experience sorrow and pain and worry, but because they know they float in a sea of love, they are not overwhelmed by their anxieties and their sorrows.

Jesus once instructed his disciples to put their boats out into deep water, where they haul in a catch of fish beyond their wildest imagination, I suspect the story is not just about the first disciples, but about each of us on our journey of faith. Deep water is the unknown, the uncomfortable place, the vulnerable place, the place you would avoid if you could. But you can’t, because like that adult non-swimmer, you know somewhere deep down that going into the deep water is the place you need to go to encounter the blessing beyond your wildest imagination.

Ross Smillie is a pastor at St. Andrew’s United Church and a member of the Lacombe and District Ministerial Association.

 

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