When I was 11 years old I attended a summer camp program sponsored by Yale University for young boys on welfare. The first day at Yale Camp, Vic Webber ordered all of us to line up in single file on the boat dock that stretched far out into Lake Quassapaug. He then asked us to raise our hand if we didn’t know how to swim. Only five kids raised their hands. I wasn’t one of them. The non-swimmers were escorted off the dock and handed funky orange flotation vests to wear in the roped-off shallow end of the lake. The remaining “swimmers” were then led out to the end of the dock. “You’ll each dive in and swim across to the floating deck,” Vic instructed. “You’ll touch the deck and then swim back. Once a swimmer returns, then I want the next boy in line to dive in and swim out. Any questions?” There should have been, but there weren’t.
I tentatively took my place at the end of the line. I kept silent and watched closely as the first boy dived into the water. “All he’s really doing is moving his arms like a windmill and waving his feet up and down,” I thought. I continued my shark-like vigil as boy after boy stood at the edge of the dock, dived in and then essentially did the same thing. “Piece of cake,” I thought, denying the tightness in my belly and the constriction in my throat.
Courageous or Numb?
Finally, it was my turn. The first thing I remember was the shock and surprise at how cold the water was. But it only distracted me for a moment. Quickly I started my legs waving and my arms windmilling. And I just kept it up, over and over again, holding my breath the whole time. Finally, when I could hold my breath no longer, I raised my head up out of the water and was pleasantly surprised to see Dave Woods, the other camp counselor’s face staring down at me from atop the floating deck. I’d made it all the way across the lake without taking a single breath. When I saw Dave’s face, I stopped kicking and windmilling. And then … blup! Down under the water I went! I was so intent on copying the swimmers’ movements that carried them out to the floating deck, I’d failed to pay attention to what those boys did once they got there. Not only couldn’t I swim, but I didn’t have a clue about how to tread water. Fortunately, Dave reached down and pulled me up onto the floating deck. “You don’t really know how to swim, do you?” Dave asked. “How could you tell?” Dave smiled and said, ”Well, that must have taken a lot of courage. You’re quite a brave little guy.” I can still recall that incident and those remarks more than half a century later.
Running the Risk of Learning
Risking trying things I don’t really know how to do has always held a strange fascination for me. I seem to be naturally curious. From learning how to drive a motorcycle and a ski boat, to flying a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza; or how to build a house or write a novel; or how to write curriculum and teach a class or offer a Webinar. I’m often fearful, but frequently willing. And that seems key: to acknowledge the fear, but to try things anyway. And then find ways to return my emotional reality to a sense of settled calm and peacefulness after the inevitable false starts and stunning failures.
Rubberizing the Big Hammer
Another piece that allows risk-taking for me involves what University of Texas at Austin psychologist, Kristen Neff describes as self-compassion. I rarely bring out the Big Ball Peen Hammer and use it on myself. I’ve learned to relate to myself kindly when I’m trying to learn new things, especially when I don’t learn them as fast or as well as Left Brain thinks I should. Intimately familiar with Left Brain’s suppressive, judgmental neural nature makes me rarely able to take it seriously for very long. I think being able to effortlessly implement self-compassion is one of the most valuable gifts we can offer our children, not to mention you know who. Buddha thought it was important enough to say this: “You could search the whole world over and never find anyone as deserving of your love as yourself.” Especially when trying to learn new things.
Oh, and what does all this have to do with the blog title? Beats me. Those words in the title are simply the top five search terms that most often brought people to my blog last year. Go figure.
But to find out more about self-compassion, funky monkeys, false starts and failures, not to mention something scary, sad and surprising, click HERE.