Some people think you’re either born emotionally strong, or emotionally weak. I think strength is a learned skill.
Some are lucky to have been raised in families that empowered them, helped them trust themselves to handle any situation that comes along. But I think most of us were trained to be afraid. Afraid of change, afraid of risk, afraid of failure. Not intentionally — our parents loved us, they hated to see us in pain, they wanted to protect us. They had been trained to be afraid, too. We learned to try to control our environments so we could feel safe. Not be safe, but feel safe, because the control we learned to wield is really just an illusion.
I think strength is nothing more than the refusal to accept fear as a driving force in our lives.
It doesn’t mean that fear is gone. It’s still there, and that means it is super duper scary when you first refuse to let it dictate your actions. You don’t trust yourself to handle what may come your way, yet, because you’re used to feeling in control and you have no idea what will happen if you stop feeling like the master of your destiny. But you’re putting yourself out there just the same.
It feels a lot like having no idea if you can swim, but jumping in the deep end anyway.
The thing about life, though, is that it’s not a pool. It’s a lot more like an ocean. When the tide comes in, you get in over your head, you feel like you’re drowning, and you don’t know what to do.
Usually when this happens, your instinct is to thrash, fight, struggle against the oppressive water. You forget what sand felt like between your toes. You think the only thing you’ll ever taste again is bitter salt water, and that you’ll die tangled in seaweed.
I think some people stay there for a long time, fighting against the tide, thinking if they can just make the right choices, avoid mistakes, they won’t end up in the deep again. They think if they do all the right things, they can live in a nice little kiddie pool, with all its rippled blue edges plainly in sight, with warm water comfortably up to their knees, and no tsunamis, ever. That’s the place where I used to live, and I still visit, sometimes.
The tide always goes out again. And then there you are, on solid ground, taking big, delicious gulps of air. You can look around again and get your bearings. If you still believe in control, you might think you won the fight against the water — that you swam to the shore, not that the tide receded.
When you become willing to push back against the fear, though, you realize that you don’t control the tide, but you can survive it. You learn to tread water. You discover that treading water makes your body stronger, your mind sharper, and, somehow, your heart bigger. You trust life a little more. You trust yourself a little more. You begin to notice things that only happen during high tide — the way the contours of the beach change, the animal life that makes its way into the normally shallow areas.
I’ve heard that people who are really experienced with treading water actually start to ache to be swept away into the swell when they’ve gone too long with their feet in the sand. I’m not there, yet . . . but I’m not afraid of the next tide.