It’s Time to Recapture the Lost Art of Growing through Discomfort

Four years ago, I learned how to swim. It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. And it represented a personal breakthrough for me.

After a lifetime of fear and telling myself I couldn’t do it, I decided to tackle this challenge because of an injured foot. I was hobbled by multiple stress fractures in my right foot, and I was going to be in a walking cast for a few months. As the doctor fastened that cast around my leg, he gave me a stern look and said, “If you put too much pressure on this foot, it will completely break in multiple places. You can’t walk on it. You have two options for exercise: light biking and swimming.” So here’s the deal: I like biking outside, but I find a stationary bike incredibly boring. Since it was too cold to bike outside, and I didn’t want to do the same boring thing every day, I decided it was time to conquer my fear of swimming.

Let me clarify: I was not a water novice. I already knew how to not drown. I could tread water and do the dog paddle. But I don’t think drowning avoidance and actual swimming are the same thing. And while I was comfortable getting into a pool, I had never been able to master the skill of actually swimming–putting my face in the water, managing the breathing process, and actually moving through the water in a reasonably efficient and intentional manner. That’s what I wanted to do.

I had had two previous experiences with trying to learn to swim–neither truly successful. In the summer after fourth grade, I had one disappointing week of lessons, during which I tried to master the basic crawl without putting my face in the water. I had never figured out how to keep water out of my nose, and no one had the time (or perhaps the patience) to teach me. I didn’t learn much that week. So I kept using my nose clip when I was in the water. That’s right, I was one of those kids with the plastic clip holding my nose shut. It was a major improvement over the previous method–holding my nose shut with my fingers.

Then in ninth grade, I attended a school that had a pool. Everyone in the school was required to complete a swimming unit as part of gym class. So I found myself once again trying to learn how to swim, this time in a much more stressful environment–a co-ed class of 14- and 15-year-olds, wearing terribly unflattering school-issue swimsuits. The experience was as awful as you might imagine. But I did have a breakthrough–one of the other girls took the time to teach me how to keep water out of my nose. And in order to get a passing grade, I had to dive into the pool. So I did. Off the side of the pool. Once.

So perhaps you can envision my anxiety and my trepidation many years later, standing at the edge of a pool early in the morning, watching people swim laps like it was no big deal. Something in me was completely convinced I was incapable of joining them. Swimming was too hard, too uncomfortable, far too scary. I just was not a swimmer. I never would be.

But there was another part of me that had finally realized it wasn’t too late for me to learn. That if other humans could swim, I could too. So I did. I did get water in my nose, and I swallowed some too. My goggles filled with water. I couldn’t figure out how to breathe. I panicked. I looked ridiculous. But I convinced myself I would not die, and I did it, and now in the winter I swim laps two to three times a week. And I like it!

This wasn’t the first time I overcame a fear or accomplished something that felt way too hard. Like everyone, I learned this skill early in my life because I had to. You did too. But the longer we live, the more optional this kind of challenge becomes. We don’t often have to confront what makes us uncomfortable, anxious, or intimidated if we don’t want to. And when we stop doing hard things, trying what we think we can’t do, or pushing past our fears, we stop getting stronger.

I’m afraid we’re now living in a society where the optional nature of discomfort keeps many people from hanging onto this lesson once they’ve learned to walk and tie their shoes. In caring for people and alleviating suffering, we have gotten mixed up and decided feeling bad is a bad thing in itself (not a symptom that indicates something needs to be resolved or a sign of growth). But difficult feelings are merely signals. And sometimes they point to a need for us to push through, rather than avoid, a challenge.

So if something is making you feel weak today, dive in! You will discover you are far stronger than you knew. If the rest of us can do it, so can you.

© 2018 Amy Simpson.