Despite being in his thirties, a little overweight but not totally unfit, Daniel was always wary around water. He’d had a couple of near misses as a child and they had been enough to put him off trying to swim his whole life. The problem was he lived by the ocean. A lot of his friends had sailing boats and dinghies but he would always refuse to go out on them. Then one day when his best friend Steve was about to take a little trip round the harbour he plucked up courage and asked to go along. The weather was fine and warm, and there was scarcely a ripple on the surface of the ocean. Steve was an expert sailor, Daniel knew. Steve would make sure he was safe. They took along a six-pack of beers for company and soon were having a great time chatting and reminiscing about the old days. Daniel even helped out by pulling on ropes and occasionally steering by holding the tiller, but when a sudden squall hit the boat side on, whipping the boom around, Daniel lost his balance and fell back into the water. Steve tried desperately to pull him out, even diving in to help, but could not grab hold of his drowning friend. Daniel was lost.
If this little story has upset you, don’t worry because I made it up. (That’s not to say it hasn’t happened though, too many times). Here’s a profound question with a simple answer. Or maybe it’s a simple question with a profound answer, I can’t figure out which.
Since human beings readily and easily float in water, why should any of us drown?
The next time someone tells you they can’t swim you can reassure them by reminding them of the following fact: water is dense and humans float on top of it effortlessly, as do dogs and tigers, hippos and elephants. We don’t float quite as effortlessly as a piece of driftwood, that’s true. A minimal amount of movement is required to sustain buoyancy, but then a living, breathing organism is never ‘not working at being alive’. Even something as fundamental as breathing can be an effort sometimes, like if you’re asthmatic or when there’s air pollution, but we never question our ability to breathe. And of course it’s true that if you’re stranded in water your body will eventually give up the ghost and sink. That ‘minimal effort’ can’t be sustained indefinitely. (Those unfortunates who are lost at sea are mostly killed by the intense cold long before they drown, which is a mercy I suppose).
The fact remains that we can all float without thinking about it. And there, of course, is the answer to my question, in a word: Thought. Our teachers are quite right when they encourage us, as children, to learn to swim. But they need to make sure, when they do it, that they don’t instil in us the equation: Inability to Swim = Drowning on Contact with Water. We have already seen how infinitely suggestible our minds are. Once that equation is internalised, becoming a part of our reality, it is the thought itself that will kill us, not the water.
Falling into water unexpectedly can be a shock to the system, even for a confident swimmer. The body’s natural reflexes kick in, ensuring that a gulp of air is quickly taken, but after that, in a ‘non-swimmer’ like Daniel, wrong thinking takes over, shutting off the person’s innate wisdom, flooding the brain, (no pun intended), with useless, negative thoughts. Daniel had that equation firmly tucked away in his personal reality: ‘If I fall in I will drown’. He had nurtured the belief through three decades of his life. What did he do on contact with the water? Did he calmly float there, knowing that his friend would fish him out in a matter of seconds? No, in blind panic he thrashed his arms around wildly, the very thing that was guaranteed to prevent his body’s natural buoyancy keeping him safe. As he felt himself sinking, so his terror increased, leading him to thrash around harder. Daniel ‘drowned himself’.
Isn’t this a pretty fair analogy, (if a dramatic one), for the way we live our lives? Substitute those thrashing arms for our most neurotic, most anti-social actions, our ego-driven desires for a better job, a better relationship, a better everything. Mind is always there, telling us to ‘float’. The shock of the cold water, (read job loss, relationship upset, accident or illness), will quickly pass, and there will always be help at hand. Remember, we floated in our mother’s wombs. Newborn babies swim underwater, smiling.
Are you ‘drowning’ right now, or floating?