I watch a terrified child in her arm bands, clinging like a barnacle to the edge of the pool. Her father bobs nearby, his outstretched hands insistent but goading. A battle rages between them; his conviction of her safety versus her fear of sinking beneath the twinkling water that looks so inviting from The Edge. Go on, I find myself saying under my breath to the girl, You’ll love it! But you have to let go of the side …
How easy it is to see a dilemma from a distance and know exactly what needs to happen to make it better. I must have been that little girl at some point, before I learned to swim. I can’t remember the first time I pushed away from The Edge and doggy paddled into the Wild Blue Yonder but I can think of countless metaphorical parallels since.
What stops us from letting go? Why bother getting into the pool at all if we never intend to swim?
Nobody surely likes the idea of sinking. What if that little girl’s arm bands do fail her? She might be justified in never trusting a swimming pool/her father/life-jackets again. Or maybe she will bypass several stages of learning by accidentally graduating straight to Survivor level by conquering Sink or Swim on day one: she’ll never know, if she doesn’t let go.
The paralysis of analysis
Whatever happens to the little girl in the next few minutes, it’s clear from my point of view that she’s not in any real danger. Her father is standing in water only waist-deep. Even if she sank like an anchor, he’d have her out of there in a flash. It’s nothing more than her own perception of worst case scenarios that’s gluing her to the side. She wants to do it – she wants to swim – but her tangled fears have tied her in knots. She’s trapped in a web of her own making. If only she can push away into the water just once, she’ll soon see the only thing she’s really fearing is fear itself.
She needs to do, not think. Her decision to get into the water has already been made.
At least I’m witnessing real potential danger here. That little girl, without her arm bands and daddy, could actually drown in front of me right here. How many times do grown-ups stop themselves from jumping into exciting new things because real danger is holding them back? Not many. Perceived danger, then? Nope. Is it about not wanting to be seen to be sinking, rather than actually hitting the bottom?
That little girl doesn’t even know I exist. If she was older, she’d be more conscious of onlookers. Perhaps she’d worry I’d laugh at her first clumsy strokes from behind my sunglasses; despite only being able to see her own tense reflection in my lenses.
What’s more important: the thoughts of a lazy lady who happens by chance to be watching, or concentrating on achieving what we set out to do?
What a waste of precious time it is, to fret over what other people might be thinking about us.
Two wrongs can make a right?
I can’t deny, I’m gripped by the drama in the pool. I can’t wait to see the delight on the little girl’s face as she crosses her first narrow slice of open water. Once she achieves this, there’ll be no stopping her. The last thing I want to see is her losing her nerve before she’s had a chance to experience the freedom and lightness of swimming.
Perhaps she’s scared of making a mistake. She’s too young to know that without mistakes we wouldn’t have rubber, Coca Cola or radioactivity.
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.” So said Fred Brooks, IBM computer scientist and software engineer. I couldn’t agree more. I can’t count how many lessons I’ve learned from the life equivalents of belly-flopping, misjudging depth or a poorly-timed intake of breath.
The art of letting go
In an eye-blink, the little girl makes up her mind to let go. It isn’t perfect, there’s a lot of splashing and face-scrunching but she’s off. She squeals with the delight of her achievement and now there’s no stopping her. In minutes, she’s pushing away from The Edge over and over again, crossing wider stretches of water each time. The last twenty minutes of terror have been washed away completely by this new thrill.
By the time I order my second beer she’s taking running jumps into her dad’s arms. The Edge she’d clung to so fearfully is a launch pad for her now.