As a child and a young man, I spent much of my spare time in swimming pools. At the age of nine, a neighbor helped me overcome my fear of the deep end by putting floaty bands on my arms and tossing me into the deep end of the high-school swimming pool. After that, I was fearless in the water, taking the high dive, exploring the floor of every pool, and spending much of my life stinking of chlorine.
Somewhere along the line, my fear of water, especially deep water, started to creep back in. At a tryout for special services in basic training, the swimming portion went so badly for me that the sergeant was pulling off his boots to mount a rescue when I finally found the edge of the pool. And experimentation proved categorically that I do not float, no matter what my state of mind.
I had this chance in the early 2000’s to go to Hawaii almost totally for free (I could never have gone otherwise and this wasn’t even a hope or dream, travel was so out of reach). Now I knew I loved the water and the romance of the ocean, and this was balanced with the fear of it—later I would learn from Kirk Schneider that what I really felt standing at the edge of a sea or an ocean was awe. This is a feeling of mystery, of openness to the unknown or unknowable, tinged with fear of that unknown. I would add to Schneider’s work that perhaps to have constructive awe we also need a willingness to tolerate that fear.
Now I did not want to go to Hawaii and just stand at the edge of the water. I hadn’t been near an ocean in years, and never immersed myself in one. I wanted to do that: sink into the ocean, merge with it in a limited way. But I don’t float, and at that time, was a very weak swimmer. So I made a deal with a starving college student to be my swimming coach. I slipped her 20 bucks twice a week to teach me to swim at the local gym. She was very patient with me, and while I will never be an Olympic contender, I quickly became a strong enough swimmer that I wouldn’t die in the ocean. I am forever in her debt. Another most important thing I learned is that whatever you are afraid of, you can engage with, and your fear will recede.
A professor in my graduate school journey would later reinforce this point. When we work on people’s fears from a CBT perspective, we find that when people are afraid of something, they are less afraid of that thing or event in itself than they are of their inability to handle it. It is not that I will get sick, it is that I will get sick and die. It is not that I fear water, it is that I fear I will drown in that water. It is not that I don’t know what will happen today, it is that something will happen that I can’t handle. Establishing some basic competence as a swimmer has made me need never again fear water. Interestingly, I can still stare at the ocean for hours, feeling a sense of awe that is less anchored in fear.
It turns out that while I don’t float in fresh water, I do float in salt water. I went to Hawaii and floated in the limitless ocean. My group also chartered a boat, and we went to a shallow bay where we could feed the fish. Oahu is surrounded by reefs and man-made ocean barriers. In this spot, only smaller fish can get in, so human swimmers are safe from deep-water predators. We snorkled for hours even though the water was a hair too cold for it, because what else were we going to do? Give up due to a little discomfort?
Later, at the beach at Waikiki, my wife and I culminated this relationship with the ocean by swimming out past the breakwater. The water out there was dead cold, a clear transition from the safe water of the beach and the now dangerous water of the real ocean. The sea floor dropped away to invisibility and was so far away it might as well have been impossible. In less than a minute, the breakwater was invisible behind us. Some tall sailboats gave us a point of reference. And there we were, in the deep ocean, alone together.
This excursion was brief. We both knew the dangers, how easy it is to get separated out there, lost and disoriented, swamped by sudden waves. And I’m no hero. So we hung out there a little, swam along the edge of the breakwater, then crossed back into safer territory, much the way a therapy client will test the deeper waters in small increments, coming back each time to safer subjects.
And, too, it was like death. Out there in the deep water, death is always present, but it is also the great nothing, an incomprehensible vastness that, unlike space, is close enough to touch. I confronted this vastness as every day I confront the fact of my own eventual death. Death terrifies even though this fear is irrational. As Yalom notes, dead people are not around to know they are dead. When you die, there is nothing to handle. I learned in this experience, long before reading Yalom, that I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of the pain of dying, and more, that when the time comes, I will be a coward, but diving into the cold, foamy sea took all the courage I had, and I did it.
— Jason Dias