Tag Archives: lessons

Sink or Swim

My father’s brand of parenting was both efficient and effective.  With five children, perhaps he lacked the time to coddle, or more likely, his military bearing precluded the impulse.  I learned to ride a bike by careening downhill in the backyard, honing my steering by avoiding pine trees as they rushed by in a blur.   He had imparted the facts at the top of the hill, pertinent information about pedaling, braking, and keeping your eyes up.  Gravity and physics are master professors.

All three of my older sisters became ace softball players, singular in their ability to field, unafraid of pop-up ground balls.  They’d lived through hours of practice in the hot Florida sun, my father beaming fast-pitch into their thin leather gloves until their palms stung. Loss of focus or flinching could mean a bobbled catch, a ball-sized bruise beneath their floral tank tops and directions to Walk It Off.  It was softball as self defense.

My younger brother learned to swim before he turned two.  A pool in our backyard and a toddler with stealthy escape skills drove my mother crazy with worry.  So she sat chain smoking by the pool while my father hired an avant-garde teacher to toss her youngest into the deep end, his blue eyes wide under the water as he blew bubbles and paddled to safety.

We learned independence early.  When it came time to pick a career path or a college, there were no fancy weekend tours, guidance counselor sessions, or laboring over applications and essays.  The process was more of a self-directed cursory decision, driven by the calendar and necessity.  No water wings, no kiddie pool–just sink or swim.

Faced with these polar options, we gained fortitude and an admirable proficiency at faking confidence even when–especially when–we felt it least.  Once when one of my sisters was about 10, my father decided it was time for her to learn to water ski.  We took the boat out on a less populated Florida lake and in she went, skinny arms held straight out in front of her and her knobby knees slightly bent atop skis that felt awkward and too large for her thin frame.   With the motor idling, you could hear the deep croaking of the alligators on the bank calling to each other.   Of course there were gators.  Every body of water in Florida contains gators.   You’ve never seen a faster study on water skis than my sister.   She got up and stayed up, at least until he had to stop to refuel.  As we slowed, she sank, her eyes growing wider as the dark lake water swallowed her whole.   I have never doubted Jesus’ miracle of walking on water.  I witnessed it first hand as my sister made it to the boat in record time.

We all learned to become high-achievers.  When the alternative to failure is becoming reptilian lunch, the non-lunch option is popular.   Some of us are just wired this way, call it Type A or chalk it up to perfectionism.  The stakes stay high.  It’s like living life in the middle of the James Bond car chase scene at all times–motivating, exciting, and intense, but exhausting.  Every little letdown becomes a crisis with personal implications.  Imagine:  your car breaks down and heads will roll because someone somewhere should have seen this coming.  Your toddler has a melt down and the entire grocery store must be judging your moral disgrace.  You get a “B” in a class and all you see are the 10 ways you should have studied harder.   In sink-or-swim living, there’s no room for error, no patience for sub-par.

Keeping the snarling dog of failure at bay means having to be constantly alert.  Because life is black and white, options get reduced to an either/or:  sink or swim.  Stepping out with something new, a change in the landscape, sends primal signals to the survival center:  fight or flight.  Because the universe has a sense of humor, all the good things come with risk of failure and the most messiness–relationships, creativity, opportunity.  When you’ve been conditioned to avoid failing, you do one of two things:  (1) dodge the risk altogether and don’t try (stay safe), or (2) do try and stay in a perpetual state of freaking out when things go awry (stay in crisis).  Both are unacceptable and frankly more than a little whack.

A provocative book called Nurture Shock discusses the outcomes of different ways to praise children.  One group was told they were smart; the other, that they were hard workers.  Hard work is something they could control; being smart is evidence of something out of their control.  After being given increasingly difficult puzzles to solve, the “smart” group gave up earlier.  They stopped trying.  Failure to solve the puzzle would mean they were no longer smart.  The “hard workers” never stopped trying.  Failure didn’t diminish their identity; it was something they knew they could work through, and even learn from, given enough time.

It’s taken some reprogramming, but thankfully I’ve learned life rarely operates in black and white.  In between sink or swim is a whole other option.  Ironically, the infant swim teacher taught us this, too.  We can float.  Floating involves no freaking out, no shortness of breath or raging at onlookers.  Turns out it’s mostly peaceful and we get a great view of the sky while we’re at it.  Unless we’re fleeing the alligators, which, let’s be honest, are mostly creatures of our trumped up imaginations, floating allows us space to trust ourselves, the universe, and other people for help.  The water itself–the very thing we were struggling against or afraid to jump into–becomes a source of buoyancy, bearing us along with the tide.

Struggle and failure hold gifts of wisdom and character that can be received no other way. When we give ourselves and our children the freedom to fail, we sprinkle grace into our lives.  We learn to sit in the mess and take stock with reasonable objectivity, picking out the good parts and tossing aside the rest.  Best of all, we learn to link hands with other failures–otherwise known as humanity–until forgiveness, humility, and grace become second nature.  We lie back with arms outstretched, fill our lungs with a long, slow breath, and float.


In a paralyzing lapse of judgment, a couple of years ago I signed up for one of those gimmicky exercise opportunities, a 5K scheduled for a pleasant spring morning.   The Foam Fest, it was called, to be held on beautiful Nashville countryside property.  The kicker–the fun part, as I billed it to my kids–was that it was also an obstacle course, with elements like plank walls and ditches.  They would be allowed, even expected, to get filthy.

foam fest group

Since the universe frequently uses me for free entertainment, the day of the event the temperature dropped twenty degrees and so began an unrelenting miserably cold drizzle.  My offspring cast wary looks at the gray skies and kept glancing at me (“the responsible adult”) to see when I would call the whole thing off.  No, no!  We would forge ahead!  What’s a little rain?  It would be refreshing!  We could DO THIS.

We fought valiantly.  Slogging through ankle deep mud, we cracked our knees on jagged rocks, helped heave and toss one another over the plank walls, and dragged each other through the inner tubes linked in waist-deep water.  We shouted encouragement as we army crawled, soaking wet, beneath an electrified mesh net, and we cheered weakly, shaking with hunger, when we spied the finish line.  By that time, we were thoroughly soaked, muddy and matted from head to toe, and so freezing cold that none of us could feel our fingers or toes.   “Almost there!” I buoyed them.  “We’ll get dried off and go get some warm lunch!”

Amidst crowds of hundreds of equally filthy runners, we stood at the back of the van and stripped off wet clothing.  Modesty?  Decorum?  Such words meant little in the face of frostbite and low blood sugar.  With the heater on full blast, I started the van to head on toward lunch and a hot shower.  We moved exactly two feet.  During the race, as the rain poured down, the hundreds of cars parked in the open cow pastures had slowly sunk, thousands of tires sucking into the soft mud below.  We were stuck.   Even the big, tough four wheel drives were spinning their wheels, mud showering any car within 10 feet.

For the first hour or two, people pitched in, neighbor helping neighbor, as teams pushed the lucky cars out one by one.  As each car moved, it left impassable muddy ruts behind, and the situation worsened.  We scavenged every stray cheerio and stale granola bar from beneath the seats, grateful it had been months since we last vacuumed the van.  As time wore on and the good Samaritans dwindled, people became more foam fest afterdesperate.  Two giant tractors were commandeered to pull the vehicles out one at a time.  Each time a tractor entered the field, people waved frantically, begging to be next.  My husband drove almost two hours to bring us food, tramping across the fields with it hidden in his coat.  We fell upon it like savage dogs.

Six. Hours.  Six hours after we passed the finish line, the tractor pulled us out to the road to head home.  Months later, after multiple car washes, I was still finding mud caked in the door frames of the van and my children shot me withering looks of how could you?! every time anyone brought it up.  Now, almost three years later, I think we’ve gotten to the point where we can laugh about it, albeit with a kind of careful, nervous tittering.

No way around it, stuck is tough to take.    This is true whether we’re trapped in a muddy field or whether it’s more of a feeling or state that’s got us mired.   Our culture adds pressure with demands for constant progress, advancement, transformations, and breakthroughs.   So we struggle and strive in what feerabbit pushingls sometimes like quicksand, unhappy with our “boring” marriage, fed up with our “monotonous” job, or impatient with not being able to “move on” from grief, fear, or anxiety.  Or maybe it’s just that we’ve worked forever on our one stubborn character flaw and it never seems to improve.  Endlessly treading water can be exhausting.  Anger and fear take over and we scream, wail, and fret our way into a tizzy, thinking we’ll use force of will and huge energy reserves to budge the immovable.

But that’s if we look at “stuck” as only inherently negative.   What if stuck is the best and simplest way to get our attention?   As a new mom, I was shocked when the nurses at the hospital demonstrated swaddling.  Take a red-faced, screaming, flailing infant and wrap her snugly in a blanket, her limbs effectively pinned, and she often calms right down, even drifts off to sleep.  What is this gypsy magic?!

Turns out, mini baby straight jackets keep babies from being disturbed by their own startle reflex.  Hmm.   Perhaps we’re wired from birth to need periods of being “stuck” to allow us to calm down, feel the Zen, and cut out the deafening mental chatter that runs rabbit acceptingnonstop otherwise.  Once we stop holding our breath in panic and resist that urge to gnaw off our own limb rather than face restraint in any form, a sense of calm acceptance takes over, new ideas and creative solutions bubble up from the silence, and the situation may appear totally different–less Pit of Despair and more Source of Revelation.

Could it be that when we feel the most “stuck” on land, our underground rivers are allowed to course freely, leading to wisdom and a depth of character we would have missed in our bustling path toward progress?    If we sit still and surrender to the present situation for a minute, a day, a year, what might we learn?

I’m not saying we should give up or “settle.”   The alternative to treading water is not to sink to a watery grave, but rather to float on your back for awhile.  If we simmer down and sit with things when we’ve hit a wall spiritually, emotionally, or professionally, taking stock without the fight or flight reflex screaming in our ears, we might be surprised.  Stuck can bring a startling peace.   Being stuck can help us notice people or resources we had overlooked or dismissed in our flailing.    It’s the truth that gets us unstuck, not striving or barreling or flailing.  The truth.  Oh, and sometimes tractors.