One of the places I love most in all the world is here in Jamaica, in the small corner in the sun where the river meets the sea at Frenchman’s Cove. This is a place awash with memories of family moments. It is also the place where my four year old son first learned to swim.
When he was three he had slipped off a step into the depths of a swimming pool and flailed in panic until strong arms pulled him out into the air. The arms came quickly, but felt like they took forever. From that time on, haunted by the depths, we saw him re-live the panic every time he was in or near a pool.
Depths that haunt and replay fears are not reserved only for four year olds. Many of us have slipped..or sometimes been pushed, into deep waters above our head; waters we either didn’t choose, or if we did choose regretted later on. Frantic we flailed and no one pulled us out. Part of us drowned that day and our suffocated self is still there…hidden in the watery depths of our heart; waiting to be resuscitated. Waiting for the breath of life to return, to revive in us the story of our souls; The story we know is there but fear is dead, drowned in the watery void.
It takes an act of will to choose life. To choose life over death. We can live in death, asleep to part of ourselves, hiding from life. numb. When death becomes our normal life it can be comfortable and comforting, familiar and safe. We build comfortable coffins for ourselves and decorate them with our coping mechanisms. We rationalise our fears, our fetishes, the walls we build around ourselves, the walls of our coffins. In the end it will always be a coffin and we will always be only half alive; dead to our deepest self…
…until we choose life.
When a child is first born psychologists tell us it has no will to live, but when it is drawn in to its mothers embrace it begins to find its will to live. Breathing oxygen for the first time burns its tiny lungs. Choosing to live is painful. Much more painful than death. But the sound of a mothers heart beat, the warm strong arms enfolding, banish the fear and consciousness of pain the child feels. Safe and connected it can now be free to thrive.
We need each other to find our will to live. We need others to help us be free to thrive. We were never made to live alone.
My son did not overcome his fear of water in isolation. It was actually his grandmother (my beautiful gentle hearted mother) who, on a family beach holiday in that corner in the sun where the river meets the sea, spent a week with him in shallow waters doing what he called proudly his ‘swim training’. All it amounted to was him lunging thirty centimetres towards her in the water (water no deeper than his waste) and her catching him in her arms. Safe Arms, patient arms, arms that never faltered. By Oliver’s decree they did their ‘swim training’ repeatedly for our entire week at the beach, always in the shallow water, always just thirty centimetres apart, always at Oliver’s choice. Within that week he had grown to trust himself in water again. In two weeks he was swimming unaided underwater more than a metre.
It was not the voice in his head telling him to overcome his fear, it was not his determined will and gritted teeth, neither was it simply the mechanical practice of swimming that did it; It was the relationship of trust that gently waited and coaxed and encouraged his will, not just to cope, not just to avoid, not just to survive, but to live, to thrive.
E.E. Cummings said “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” It is much more comfortable to stay the way we have always been. Comfortable in our coffins of the past. But coffins are confining, they cloister and clamp, they limit our future with the shackles of our past. If we are to live the life we are born to live we have to find within our core the courage to wade into the waters of our aversions, the depths of our negative attitudes, the fathoms of our fears.
Actions change attitudes, not thoughts. We cannot think our way to wholeness, we must act in whole ways and soon we will fit into our actions, like a new pair of shoes that take a while to wear in.
Henri Nouwen said ‘You don’t think your way into a new way of living, you live your way into a new way of thinking.’
But it takes courage to act in the direction of our fears. Courage. Where do we find courage if the air we breath is fear and our nervous system normal is avoidance? Where do we even find the strength to tell ourselves the truth about all we fear?
A wise man once observed…
‘Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour:
if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up…
…A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.’*
Alone we are quickly broken, but a friend can put courage back into our hearts where fear has torn it out. We were created to need each other on every level of our humanity… physically, emotionally and spiritually. There is no shame in needing help. The only negative thing in all creation was for mankind to be alone.
The word encouragement has its etymology in the french word ‘Encoragier’. This word is built from ‘en’ meaning to ‘make or put in’ and ‘corage’ which means both courage and heart. Encouragement literally means to restore courage or heart within another; To strengthen a persons heart within them.
It is not just a warm sentimental, permissive relationship that strengthens us to soar, but the kind of relationship that gently strengthens our own heart within us, sometimes with a loving hug, sometimes with a loving push, sometimes with a loving truth, but always with a loving commitment.
Relationships that give us permission to hide in our coffins and avoid our challenges never produce life. They stunt us. Relationships that gently strengthen us to grow and act upon our fears are relationships of real love. This love produces the courage to live, to thrive and to face our fears. And these actions eventually produce growth and life. Healing comes when we take a step in courage, with the support of a companion, in the direction of what we fear most. Fears flee in the light of courage just as darkness flees with the dawn of light.
And now-days in the small corner in the sun where the river meets the sea at Frenchman’s Cove there is a small boy who charges through the waves, kung-fuing them with courage, power and giggles of glee. Unafraid. Living. Thriving. Because perfect love, gently, patiently and over time casts out all fear.
‘There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.’ 1 John 4:18