My mother is terrified of water, and I’ve been afraid of water since I was a toddler and got knocked over by waves at the beach. My parents made sure I went to swimming lessons–over and over again–hoping that learning how to swim would dissolve the dread and replace it with confidence. I became competent, but never reached enjoyment.
As a California high-schooler, water was part of my social life: PE classes, swimming pool parties, excursions to the lake, water skiing, body surfing in the ocean, … My timidity was a deficit. I loved being in the middle of a crowd, I loved participating in games of all sorts, I loved the challenge and competition of sports–except in the water. But showing my fear brought out the shark in others–it’s like pool radar. Nothing seemed to be more fun than to dunk the person who panicked. So I did my best to hide my fear and put on the mask of enjoyment by exerting as much control as I could–stay in water shallow enough to stand up, make multiple trips to the bathroom, sit around on the side of the pool and talk (boring but safe), find something else to do when the dunking started, … I became pretty good at hiding behind a mask of false confidence, self-sufficiency, and control.
Fast forward to my late forties. On a family vacation to Colorado, I finally consented to going white-water rafting. It was the first week they opened the river after the spring thaws, and the river was high and flowing swiftly. I paid close attention to the safety instructions–tuck feet tightly, row rhythmically, face downstream if you fall in–strapped myself tightly into the largest life preserver I could find and bravely climbed aboard the raft. You know where this story is going.
Half-way down the first run, rowing enthusiastically as instructed, the raft unexpected hit a trough on my side just as I leaned forward to row and I did a forward roll into the frigid water. I could tell you every second of my time in the water: a daughter calling “It’s okay, Mom,” the guide barking rowing instructions to my family, the boulders I bounced off of, body trmbling in the icy water, trying to keep my head above water … and the guide’s voice telling me to turn and look at him. I was so confused. I had memorized the safety instructions and they were very clear: turn your feet downstream. The guide was telling me something different–look at him, turn toward the raft, and try to swim closer to the raft as we careened down the river. “Trust me. Swim to me.”
I was clearly not self-sufficient and not in control. I could either panic or trust that the guide knew what he was doing. I chose to trust. My family also responded to his rowing instructions. Somehow I made it close enough to the raft to catch the life line, and he pulled me on board.
We got to the end of the run and our group of rafters were told we did so well, we could go upstream on the bus and take a harder run. Wrapped in a blanket, I rode on the bus watching the river we would be navigating–which included a ten-foot waterfall–and I had to make another choice: chicken out or trust the guide to get me through this. The worst imaginable scenario had already happened and I had been saved. I got back in the boat.
I tucked my feet more securely, rowed with a little more constraint, watched for troughs … but I was in the boat. And I could honestly say I enjoyed it. Cold, bruised, but satisfied and joyful.
It wasn’t until yesterday morning in a small group discussion at church that I realized that God had given me this experience as a perfect example of trust. He spoke a parable into my life: “Don’t be afraid. Abandon your fierce grip on self-sufficiency and control. Trust me. I’m watching, and I’ll always pull you back into the boat.”
I’m still working on the abandon part. God’s got the guide role down pat.