‘Your mother and I worry about how far out you swim.’ My father’s voice got serious. He tends to hold the phone so that instead of his face, I’m looking up at the ceiling, or at his nostril. He still hasn’t got this whole look at the phone screen while you’re WhatsApping routine down. But I’m not complaining. This time last year he almost died. I’m happy to see his nasal or ear hairs while we speak. ‘What about the sharks?’ he asked. ‘Why aren’t you scared?’
It’s a fair enough question, and one I am probably just about ready to answer. It’s (almost to the day) a year ago since I prolapsed a disc in my back. I had just arrived in South Africa, rushed to the hospital where my dad was in ICU, tentacled to too many machines. And as I left that ward, my disc popped. For the next eight weeks, I couldn’t stand or walk.
Finally, back in Sydney, I started walking in an ocean bath to get some movement back. That became a few gentle laps of swimming, which took me out into the bay, and finally into open water. To where the sharks are.
‘Dad,’ I said, ‘of course I’m scared.’
It would be foolish to swim out into the vast expanse of the ocean and not be conscious of the fact that I am in shark territory – not to mention in the neighbourhood of jimbles, blue-bottles, manta-rays, octopus and jellyfish.
How do I explain this to my father?
I have lived most of my life in a state of fear, saying NO because of what might happen when I am out of my comfort zone. I’ve avoided experiences because of my fear of failure; my anxiety; my lack of trust in my body. I still cannot ride a bicycle. I have a weak back. Physical strength is something of a mystery to me. As is a sense of safety. I think all women feel this way to some extent.
But I swore, when I was flat on my back this time last year – that I would never again take my mobility or my body for granted. I would no longer live my life as fear’s bitch.
The Finnish have the concept of Sisu – which is the art of doing difficult things. It is often spoken of in the context of ice swimming and translates as grit, fortitude or perseverance – or ‘not taking the easy way out.’ Doing uncomfortable things creates a certain resilience and tenacity. It turns a flabby consciousness into a sharp tool we can draw on to overcome challenging experiences. It allows us to tap into mental strength beyond the limits of what we think we have in reserve. It takes us to the edges of our own tolerance, discomfort, and courage.
If we’re always only doing the things that feel easy to us, how will we grow? Growth is always about stretching ourselves outside the choreography of previous situations. My friend Faith laughed at me the other day when she heard I’d done a 4km ocean swim: ‘Jo, you’re so extreme.’
Joanne Fedler is an internationally bestselling author of 10 books, writing mentor and publisher. In the past seven years, she’s facilitated 12 writing retreats all over the world, mentored hundreds of writers (both face to face and in her online writing courses), set up her own publishing company, Joanne Fedler Media, and published four debut authors (with many lined up to follow). She’s passionate about publishing midlife memoirs and knows how to help people succeed in reaching their goal to become a published author.
But you know, until I stepped out of the water that day, I didn’t know if I could swim 4km in rough seas. I went in, as Zed encouraged me, ‘trusting my training,’ but unsure of whether the ocean would co-operate and let me finish.
I come to the water as a visitor. I behave as a guest. I stand at the edge and I ask permission to enter. I wait for an answer. Some days, I feel the answer is ‘no.’ Then, I go for a paddle in an ocean bath. If the answer is yes, I ask for safe passage. Only then, do I head in.
When I am back on land, I’m aware it’s only by the grace of the ocean. I never take for granted that it’s something I’m owed, or I can rely on.
This relationship is teaching me to trust the water, and that in turn is helping me to meet parts of myself I’ve never met – I’m obsessed with the parts of my brain that are just sitting dormant in my cranium and how to unlock them. How might we evolve as a human species if we all used more than just fractions of our brain power and imagination? (If I hadn’t become an author, I’d love to have been a neuroscientist).
So, yes, perhaps I am always looking for places I haven’t been to. I’m always wondering what else there is – not just out there in the world but inside me. Some people take this literally and travel. But we don’t have to fly to new places to encounter ourselves afresh. We can simply know what we’re afraid of, and venture into its waters.
I don’t expect to ever not fear sharks. That would be to misunderstand who and where I am.
But the truth is that I am more scared of human beings. I’m more afraid of Trump, Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, and the cruelty and idiocy of ignorant, greedy people, the lack of compassion and disregard for nature than I am of a shark looking for its next meal.
I am more afraid of the world in which the oceans become sharkless because of our brutality and violation of the laws of nature. An ocean that is icy cold and full of sharks is a healthy one. That’s the ocean I want to swim in. That’s the ocean I pray for every day.
It is also statistically unlikely that I will ever become shark bait. It’s far more probable that I will get hit by a car or struck down by one of the many somaterric diseases that our pollution of the planet has made an almost inevitable fate for many of us.
And, I would rather be swimming in an ocean with sharks than flat on my back with a prolapsed disc.
So, what can I tell my dad?
Dad, I want to know myself in the light of experiences I have not yet had. It’s why I wanted a natural childbirth (how much pain could I tolerate without drugs? Never got to find out – had to have Caesareans). It’s why I did the 4 km instead of the 2 km swim. I want to know what my own personal thresholds are. It feels like a good practice.
Because someday everything that is comfortable and familiar will be taken from me – including you. And when that time comes, I want to be a good practitioner of discomfort. Pain is a good teacher. Grief, of course is the best teacher of all. While I’m lucky enough to be pain-free and skirting the edges of grief, I go to the ocean and I ask the sharks to be my guides.
Here are two photos – one from this time last year and one from now. I am grateful for the journey that brought me here.