Although nothing could keep me away from the swimming pool where my childhood friends and I splashed away hot summer days, I have never been much of a swimmer. When I was quite little, age five or six, my family and I were taking an overnight stop on a long and brutally hot driving vacation to I-don’t-know-where, and I was playing by myself in the shallow end of the hotel pool. I’d tuck myself into a ball at the bottom, then drive my feet against the pool floor and launch myself up into the air where I’d grab a quick breath before submerging again. Over and over again in the joyful obsessive-compulsiveness of youth I jumped until finally I submerged and found myself, not at the bottom of the pool, but suspended between the surface and the floor which was much farther beneath me than before. I had crossed the line into the deep end. I remember looking up toward the surface with no way to get there, watching rays of sun stream through the water at an angle above me. Bubbles from my surprised exclamation drifted up toward the blue sky. I didn’t feel panicked, but as I hung there in the sound-muffling coolness I was thinking a six-year-old’s equivalent to the expression, “I am screwed.” At that point, my mother plucked me out of the water, happy ending, thank you very much, Mom, for paying attention!
That must have been shortly before the swimming lessons started. They were stressful. I wanted to do well, but for a long time I was convinced that holding my breath underwater for even a few seconds was equivalent to drowning. When I finally got over that and managed to pass Beginners, I discovered that most of the Advanced Beginners skills were pretty awful too, particularly treading water. I vividly recall the grey day we had to leap into the deepest section of the pool near the diving boards and tread water for two or three days, or however long it took to pass the test. My panicky movements didn’t do much to improve my buoyancy, and every swoosh of my arms and kick of my legs barely kept my chattering teeth above the water’s pursing lips as it gently tried to suck me down. Once the timed tests were over and I could keep myself afloat any way I wanted, I preferred to float on my back, the better to keep my face out of water and turned to the sky. I even got comfortable enough doing this to discover that when I inhale deeply I float better; my air-filled lungs are a kind of flotation device. It is hard to inhale deeply and remain panicked, so in addition to being more buoyant I felt a lot calmer, too.
This works out of water as well. Life regularly throws us into the deep end: someone we love gets sick or has a terrible accident, we lose a job or are betrayed by a friend. Our initial reaction is often to struggle and panic. Sometimes, someone comes by and lifts us up, gets us straightened out and onto solid ground. But just in case no one shows up to do that for you, it is good to be able to keep yourself calm and not get pulled down into the depths. Breathing helps. Also, it is important to remember that even though the potential for peril is all around you (water,) that doesn’t mean the worst is actually happening (drowning.) What do you have to keep you afloat? A pair of lungs? Good, keep breathing. A faith that promises there is a reason to hope? An excellent life preserver, hold on tight. The presence of mind and energy needed to reach the shore or at least a boat? Keep calm and do the best you can; you are closer to salvation than you think.
[Thus says the Lord] When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; –Isaiah 43: 2a