I learned how to swim by being thrown into a pool. I can’t remember if this coincided with taking a poop in the pool, but I remember doing that, too. It's possible that being left to sink or swim, literally scared the $%&^ out of me.
I’m thinking about this because I had the distinct pleasure of watching my four-year old nephew take his tentative first steps in a pool. He was supported by a loving father and the watchful eyes of extended family nearby. His father did not push him to do any more than he was comfortable doing and interestingly, while my nephew grew confident there was a decided limit to what he would do.
Lest you think my nephew a coward, he was pushing himself in subtle ways. You could read the frustration on his face while watching his older cousins diving about. He wanted to be doing what they were capable of but did not force himself. He seemed to know that he would get there – on his own schedule. And so seated in an inflatable boat, he worked hard at mastering the art of navigating the water; hugging it to go backward, parting it to go forward. He went at his own pace and his father validated his efforts by subtly allowing for any baby steps he might want to take.
Eventually wanting to do more, his father obliged him and switched my nephew’s vessel from an inflatable raft to a pool noodle which put him more in direct contact with the water. His father drew him across the water as if to demonstrate what he would be able to do on his own one day.
On the sidelines, my family debated whether a child should be forced to learn to swim. I came down on the side of not forcing the issue because even if you accomplish the goal – the child learns to swim - you may be sinking the child in other ways.
Nothing quite illustrates my point like that of a poem by Mary Oliver, The Swimming Lesson:
Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.
Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,
Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, --
How to survive in any place.
I can safely say now as an adult, that I didn’t learn how to swim by being thrown into the pool. That skill actually required adult swim lessons where I learned for the first time the dynamics of making your way though the water. Instead, being thrown into the pool taught me how to survive. And learning through surviving tends to teach only that learning has to be hard and that growing requires suffering.
How would my experience now be different if I were allowed to believe that I didn’t have to survive to learn? That I could gently go at my own pace and that how I felt in the journey was worth validating?
My nephew’s example was informative – learning can be accomplished in far gentler ways.