Ever dive into the deep end of a pool? The further down you go the more pressure you feel. It’s from the weight of all that water above you. Descend to the bottom of the shallow end and there’s much less weight. If you think about it, swimming under water is the perfect metaphor for life.
When we are young, we tip our toes in the water. We cautiously try new things, usually under the protective watch of our parents. They act as our lifeguards. With confidence and a few years under our belt we learn to tread water and swim. We discover how to risk a bit. We hold our breath and venture underwater. Not unlike the experience of attending a new school. Or giving our first class presentation.
With life experience and some maturity, we begin to swim further from the shallow end. The lifeguards still eye us, but with a bit less trepidation. We feel the freedom of swimming further and deeper. Much like going off to college. Or starting that first big job.
When I was a kid I had a buddy whose parents belonged to a private swim club. I was often invited during the summer months to come with them to the swim club. Kids were required to pass a swim test before they were allowed to venture into the deep end, or use the diving board. My buddy was braver than me. He took the test, passed, and soon was waving to me from the diving board. It took me months. But one day, I went for it.
Passing that swim test was a lot like earning a diploma from high school or college. It opened a door for me. I was now allowed to swim in the deep waters. Like an adult.
Over time, swimming in the deep end becomes routine. It loses its specialness. Like a career you worked hard to grow in, sometimes you reach a level of ambivalence. Maybe even boredom. And that’s when it can get dangerous. When you run the risk of drowning.
The accumulation of years is a lot like the weight of water above you in the deep end. We shoulder few burdens as children. Swimming to the bottom of the shallow end is easier. Less weight above us. Less responsibilities and worries. But swimming through the currents of the deep end is different. There’s a lot of weight above us. The weight of regrets. Aging. Health challenges. Divorce. Loss.
The celebrated American novelist David Wallace Foster clearly swam in the deep end of life. Educated at Amherst College, he majored in english and philosophy. His philosophy senior thesis was in modal logic. He was a deep thinking guy. But as writer Alexander Nazaryan wrote in Newsweek magazine, he was a “turbulent genius.” He struggled mightily with depression. Yet in one commencement speech he warned against disillusionment, urging us to embrace compassion, mindfulness and existentialism.
David Wallace Foster navigated the currents far below the surface of the deep end. But his exquisite mind was unable to reconcile the pain. The weight of all that water. And so, at 46 years old, he hung himself. He drowned in the deep end of life.
I have already explored the difficult subject of suicide in a past article (click here). This article is about adulthood, the weight of responsibilities, and how to survive the deep end of life. You see, we’re all consigned to a certain degree of routine, commitments and difficulties. Alexander Nazaryan’s Newsweek article mentioned the Soviet-born poet Joseph Brodsky, who said to a graduating Dartmouth class that “a substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom.”
Much of life contains amazing moments, like marriage and children and career milestones. But a great deal of life also contains mundane routine. Commutes. Meetings. Obligations. Boredom. These things reflect the weight of water above you in the deep end.
If we are to surface safely from the deep waters of life, we must rely on certain buoys. They are life lines. They literally lift us up. The three most important buoys are:
1. Health- Take care of yourself. You can’t last long in the water if you’re unhealthy. And you’ll be no good to other swimmers in distress.
2. Family– Who will be there to hand you a towel when you emerge from cold waters? Who will swim with you? Family are the buoys in life that help keep us afloat.
3. Passion- You need something beyond family that you love. That you really care about. If you don’t have that, then the will to work your way back to the surface may wane. Don’t let boredom, routine and regrets weigh you down. Passion (for your art, your cause, your charity or faith) is what will help you stay afloat.
There will be hot days ahead. Times when you’ll want to cool off and refresh. So dive into that pool of life and swim. Venture into the deep end when you’re ready. But equip yourself. Be smart about it. Remember the important buoys of health, family and passion. Do that, and you’ll avoid drowning in the deep end of life. Instead, you’ll have braved the deep waters and emerged. Refreshed, invigorated and alive.