One of my best skills is the ability to float through life.
Hours in the swimming pool gave me wrinkled skin, a couple of fearful experiences that I was drowning, and many afternoons of fun, but not the ability to swim. My mother took me to the pool once a week as if it was doctor’s orders. Actually, it was doctor’s orders. In spite of the frequent chlorine soaks, I never learned how to swim.
The purpose of the excursions was not to develop a good backstroke technique but to enhance physical therapy. When the polio virus wormed its way into my body in the early 1950’s, not only was there a lack of knowledge about a cure, but also little understanding about treatment and recovery. Thirty years earlier, President Roosevelt, combating the paralyzing disease himself, popularized the idea that being in water was good therapy. There had been nothing to disprove the notion so my mother was instructed to take me to the pool. From my understanding, treatment of patients with polio was always more trial and error than medical application.
Even though there was no expectation of me ever becoming anything like Johnny Weissmuller or Michael Phelps, we were all pleased with the experience. The rationale was that the buoyancy of the water would make it possible for me to stand and perhaps even take a few steps on my own. It never happened. The atrophy of my muscles was too advanced. Not only was I unable to stand or walk, but neither could I swim.
However, the one thing I learned in those hours in the pool was how to float. It was no small accomplishment. Not everyone can float in the water because it requires an ability that many people find elusive. One of my first physical therapists, got in the water with me, put me on my back and supported me with her hand under the back of my neck. She then instructed me to relax, bend my head back and submerse it into the water until my ears were covered. When she removed her hand from my neck, I stayed afloat.
Floating is just that simple. It is a matter of relaxing and keeping the head low in the water, two things that many find difficult when they are in the pool. The limited use I had in my arms allowed me to move around the pool while staring up at the ceiling. I quickly became brave enough to float around completely on my own. It was not the same running, jumping, and splashing that most kids do in the pool but it was good for me.
The ability to float is all about letting go and giving up control. When you float in the water, you provide very little guidance. No doubt, this explains the origin of the phrase “go with the flow.”
When the physical therapist taught me how to float, she taught me a valuable lesson. I learned very early that life is hard! Not just mine, but probably yours as well. Some are aware of this truth from a very early age – perhaps raised in poverty, alone without strong family support, physical failings, or some other obvious condition. Others don’t learn this until much later when they realize money doesn’t buy happiness, high school popularity can’t make a divorce feel good, business success doesn’t really provide good friends, or good insurance does not guarantee good health.
The natural response to a difficult life is to kick and shove and push and fight until we make our way through. However, we soon find ourselves getting tired, like a swimmer trying to tread water just to stay afloat. The key to long-term survival in the deep water is to float. But it is also difficult since it means that we must give up control.
The physical therapist who taught me to float provided me with the ability to give up control – an amazing skill when it comes to living a hard life. The two keys to successful floating are to relax and keep looking up. I have attempted to make this my simple approach to life – relax and keep looking up.