Facing fear in the deep end of the pool.
My 12-year-old son and I got our SCUBA certifications in March, finishing our open water exams over two unusually chilly Florida mornings at the Blue Grotto, a fresh water cavern, and the picturesque Rainbow River, a clear, spring fed river meandering through lush tropical Florida foliage. God being God, the timing of this adventure coincides with an epic and dramatic growth period in my life, years of soul-searching and uneasy growing pains finally culminating in a series of breakthroughs still in progress.
I find God can use everything to guide and bless me if I'm tuned in. SCUBA is no different. It's challenged some fears, affirmed some important life lessons, and equipped me with some handy tools for everyday life.
Nothing to fear but fear itself.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s oft-quoted golden nugget is actually…
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” (Roosevelt, n.d.)
WOW. A little research can go a long way. How wise Roosevelt’s full observation! “Fear…nameless, unreasoning...” Indeed, fear can prevent us from doing what we long to do, what we’re called to do. It can paralyze us, as it paralyzed me for years. And fear almost prevented me from pursuing SCUBA certification. But emboldened by my adventurous son and intrepid, globetrotting SCUBA-diva stepmom, I pushed through the fear.
In SCUBA, there are two cardinal rules: NEVER hold your breath and DON’T PANIC, usually the very trigger to holding one’s breath. In fact, either can have potentially life-threatening consequences. Fear can prevent you from thinking clearly, causing you to make a foolish decision, like surfacing too quickly, causing your lungs to explode. Gulp. I didn’t know enough to start SCUBA classes with that fear. I started with more routine fears.
Mind you, I love the water in any form and am a decent swimmer but admit that deep water is a latent near-phobia of mine; really, the fear of the unknown lurking beneath me in the vast, infinite ocean. I never let this stop me, even at the Atlantic beaches of my childhood. I still venture past where my feet touch and the water grows dark and fathomless. But every so often, the deep would cause me to breathlessly stroke myself to solid-sea-bottom.
Combine the unknown depths with the initially-odd claustrophobic feeling of breathing through a regulator while encased in heavy and constricting gear. Then throw in concurrently coordinating a few other critical tasks (ear-clearing, buoyancy, keeping up with my buddy, watching out for perils)…and the fear could really drown you. But face all that fear and the reward is sweet: Swimming graceful and fishlike in a magical unseen and beautiful world, with only the sound of your own breathing and water bubbles to lull you into a mystical state.
There are some uneasy milestones on the way to the payoff, though.
None of our check-out dives were in the optimal, sunny Florida-winter paradise I’d envisioned. In fact, the first one at the Rainbow River nearly stopped both Pierce and I in our tracks. The Rainbow River is a popular freshwater SCUBA destination. Spring-fed for a constant 72 degrees, the river winds through lush tropical vegetation and old Florida waterfront bungalows and newer McMansions. Along the way, there are clear, deeper 30-foot wells where SCUBA students can comfortably test their skills on the sandy bottom. Later, SCUBA divers can inflate their BCDs (buoyancy control devices) and enjoy a leisurely float down the river.
The morning of our first two dives it was dark, rainy and record-breaking 46 degrees as we donned our gear. Very unusual even for Florida’s erratic winter weather. It cast a little shadow on our excitement, but troopers that we are, we focused on the positive. That is, until we started assembling and checking our gear.
“Mom, my tank is hissing…” Pierce said as he fidgeted with his regulator.
We were already running a little bit behind most of our class, amplifying our angst.
After trying to find the problem, I called a friend’s master diver husband over.
“You’re missing an o-ring,” he quickly diagnosed.
An o-ring is a little gasket. No big deal, unless it’s missing, preventing a complete seal so the air can escape. Well, golly, that sure doesn’t sound good at all.
I ran to find my instructor Rich who was already at the dock with most of our class in all their gear, waiting to board the boat.
I could sense his irritation as he followed me back to where Pierce stood helpless. While Rich rummaged through his car, I tried to reassure Pierce.
“Breathe, pray,” I said with Oscar-winning conviction. “It’s OK.”
I started to check my own gear. My octo (short for octopus, the secondary regulator used when someone else run’s out of air) was stuck open, the air bleeding out.
Now the fear started to well up. My mind went fuzzy-negative. Is this a sign we shouldn’t go? Bad weather, equipment mishaps, Rich still hunting for another o-ring…Maybe we should just skip this?
I didn’t voice my fear. Instead, I remembered the SCUBA admonition not to panic, along with God’s frequent reminders not to let fear take me down.
Now Pierce, known as the iceman among his baseball teammates for his cool head, started to panic.
“Mom, what if we can’t dive?” he asked anxiously. ”Everybody’s waiting for us.”
“Don’t panic, Pierce, remember?” I said, only half convinced myself but willing. “We’ll just take it a minute at a time. Deep breaths. This could happen to anyone.”
Rich appeared with an extra o-ring.
“My regulator is broken,” I said sheepishly.
By now Rich had regained his instructor’s detached demeanor. “No problem, I have an extra.”
Finally ready, Pierce rushed ahead, embarrassed we were holding everyone up.
I rushed after him and as I made my way down the final gang-plank to the boat, I slipped on my butt for all to see.
I didn’t skip a beat. The breathing, prayer and mental focus had kicked in. I pulled myself up as nonchalantly as one can with 30 pounds of gear and found my spot onboard.
False Evidence Appearing Real.
I often remind myself of the helpful acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. FEAR, a constellation of real or imagined facts mushroom in my mind to that paralyzing anxiety.
How many times in my life had I let catastrophic thinking, projected calamities, apparent “omens” prevent me from me stepping out? Stop me from doing something I really wanted to do? Or even just prevent me from enjoying my life because my mind is consumed with anxious thoughts?
Let’s not go there. I can’t undo the past, but I can certainly not repeat it.
We made our way to the dive spot, silent with anticipation.
Giant stride in, we bobbed over to a sheltered cove, waiting for instructions.
Ten-minutes later, we were at the bottom of the 23-foot “bowl,” knees in the sand, ready for our skills test. The first was filling our mask with water, and clearing it--an awkward, somewhat unsettling process.
A classmate went first, the only other woman in the group. She was struggling. After several attempts to clear her mask, she was clearly panicked. Rich signaled for us to wait while he escorted her to the surface, then returned to fetch her husband, her designated diving buddy.
Rich returned and tested us all. We aced all our skills, the series of seemingly ominous events earlier in the day completely forgotten.
The road from fear to fun started simply. Breathe. Stop and breathe. So basic, yet so usefully transferable.
It’s as natural as breathing, or so they say. Is it true? Until SCUBA, I didn’t know how often I don’t breathe. Really. In SCUBA, breathing continuously helps maintain air pressure and avoid injuries, promotes consistent buoyancy, manages air supply, and fosters calmness.
As a woman who is often deep in my head, it took me years to learn how to feel my feelings or tune into my body. It’s a conscious effort. The discipline of conscious breathing in SCUBA stills my mind and helps me to connect to God.
Submerging, the tell-tale bubbles escaping from the regulator tell me if I’m breathing or not. Breathing too hard, I also become more buoyant, like an inflated balloon drifting up. Not breathing enough, I sink. Physical cues to consistent breathing.
SCUBA breathing does for me what only jogging has ever provided. The quiet mind to connect with God. After struggling in vain to meditate in more conventional ways, I finally recognize running—and now SCUBA—as my form of meditation. It makes sense.
God breathed life into us (Genesis 2:7) and in Christ, we actually have our very life, breath and being (Acts 17:28). The very act of breathing connects us to God, a fact recognized by countless spiritual disciplines through the ages.
Pause. Breathe some more.
On land or in water, fear triggers frantic, often unhelpful and rash action. Picture the aimless flailing of a drowning person or the mad stampede of a movie-theater crowd when the fire alarm sounds. Or picture Isabella reading an email that carries unexpected threatening news, real or perceived. The primitive fight or flight reflex kicks in and every fiber of my being wants to spring into action. My thoughts confused or a fear-focused. Pausing and breathing is the first line of defense against a panic spiral.
In SCUBA, we’re warned not to panic because panic causes makes for bad decisions and often causes you to hold your breath. Holding your breath at 80 feet below sea level is a really bad idea. Under pressure, the air in our bodies compresses as we descend under water and expands on ascent. If you hold your breath and ascend without proper measures, your lungs and other cavities like ears and sinuses, become overinflated balloons. You get the picture. It ain’t pretty.
Thus, we are highly motivated to stop and breathe mindfully, more deeply and slowly than normal, collecting our thoughts.
There is plenty of Biblical precedence for pause. The most prevalent and powerfully relevant may be “selah,” the Hebrew word scattered throughout the psalms of much-debated meaning, but often thought to mean pause. Yet even then, it’s not just a simple break in the action, but a pause encompassing praise and “lift up.” One source actually says, “Pause and calmly think about that.”
Fine advice if you’re face to face with danger 80 feet under water.
Whatever the accurate meaning, pausing and breathing in the face of fear is a simple and powerful discipline in averting another SCUBA no-no…
Our instructor painted a vivid picture—not that he needed to. You’re in 80 feet of water and encounter a creature with lots of sharp teeth. Of course, every terrified, confused and stressed cell wants to shoot to the surface. Such an action seems intuitive, but indulged, it’s really a potential disaster. Your cavities start to inflate. Previously just an unappetizing rubberized, tube-n-tank-laden string bean, you are suddenly the mouse in a fetching game of cat and mouse. Another unpleasant picture.
Again, we’re invited to collect ourselves by stopping, breathing deeply and slowly, and then, promptly connecting with our buddy, which leads us to...
Don’t go it alone.
In SCUBA, you never dive alone. You always dive with a buddy. This relationship begins on shore, when you plan your dive and designate a leader, usually the weakest diver so nobody’s pressured to dive beyond their comfort zone. Buddies check each one another’s gear, point out wonders and perils, and stay within arm’s reach at all times. In an emergency, your buddy is your first responder.
In non-aquatic life, I’ve faced many perils, and wonders, alone. I’ve navigated crises of all kinds, hunkered-down in my home and my mind, all by myself, unwilling or even downright unable to be vulnerable. I’ve exhausted myself solving complex problems without help, too proud or too ashamed to admit I needed it, or just to used to going alone. I’ve also won great victories without sharing or celebrating, afraid or ashamed of boasting, or feeling unworthy of any pomp.
In SCUBA, a buddy is mandatory and a lot of time is spent rehearsing lifesaving skills—like sharing air--with your buddy. The buddy can warn of danger and if one partner is panicking, the buddy soothes and supports her until they’re back on beam or safely at the surface. And even when a dive is uneventful, a buddy’s periodic handle signal to check if you’re OK is a pleasant and reassuring reminder you’re not alone.
In the divine depths, the buddy can point out the dazzling coral, massive manta ray, or school of clown fish. The joy of diving doubled.
Breathe. Pause. Don’t panic. And don’t go it alone.
These simple diving principles, so basic and practical to everyday life, have eluded me for most of my life. Through SCUBA, these essential practices have become more hardwired. I can’t help but notice that I didn’t grasp them in the dozen hours of classroom time, sitting safely at a desk. They came only by facing my fears to dive first into the shelter of a swimming pool, then in a spring, a river, a gulf and eventually the vast ocean. Armed with these tools, rather than paralyzing me, the fear faced motivated me.
Courage, after all, is not the absence of fear, but feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
My SCUBA certification has given me a new skill, a new channel for adventure, a new respect and admiration for nature, a new bond with my son and stepmom, and a new weapon in my arsenal against the enemy of fear…
If a fear is hindering your life today, consider facing it head on and discover the rewards on the other side.
And remember, God loves you no matter what.