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Everybody Swims: Embracing Existential Dread

In white water kayaking, there is a saying, “Everybody swims.” It’s inevitable. Besides for a few uber athletes sponsored by Red Bull, the goal of most kayakers is to run difficult rapids upright—Plan A. If you flip, the plan is to roll back up—Plan B. And, Plan C, is to pull your spray skirt, slide out of your boat, and swim. Plan C is much less desirable, as water safely kayaked can be dangerous, or at least exhausting, to swim. And, then there’s the issue of where the kayaker ends up once out of the water, retrieving the boat and paddle, and getting the swimmer reunited with their equipment. A clean run is thrilling—you get to see the rapid up close as you utilize the water’s forces to smoothly navigate down. A combat roll (Plan B) is invigorating—a confidence boost. A swim—at its best and safest—is deflating and chilling.

Those with mental toughness stay in their boats longer, repeatedly attempting their rolls if necessary. Those who tend to freak out have been seen pulling their spray skirts before they have even gotten their hair wet. My natural inclination is the “freak out" approach. But, when I have spent the winter practicing my roll in the pool and I am boating regularly, I have the fortitude to stay with Plan B longer.

One of the techniques to help boaters successfully execute Plan A is to scout difficult rapids. You get out of your boat in the calm water that lakes up before a big drop, where you can hear the roar of the unseeable rapid. You scramble up the cliff to a point where you can gaze down on the roiling waters. This is supposed to help you plan a route and anticipate what you will experience as you run the rapid. I was slow to learn to read rapids—for many years, looking at rapids just made wish for an outhouse. I remember a fellow newbie who confessed that, when they scouted, they planned their swim line—they had no faith in Plan A or B, so they prepared their Plan C.

In contrast to my “freak out” style of boating, my spouse belongs to the mental toughness group. When he flips, he confidently utilizes Plan B, and almost always roll up. So, it was a surprise to me when, after running an active rapid, I saw my spouse swimming out of an eddy. An eddy is a calm spot in the river, behind a rock or other obstacle. An eddy is a place to rest, regroup, plan next steps, etc.—an easy spot to roll, should you get flipped on the eddy line (the swirling created by the water moving rapidly downstream with the current combining with the slow upstream-moving eddy water). It turns out that he had not been alone when he got into the eddy—it was stacked with debris. A large tree trunk with many branches had entangled him and his kayak. Logs are a significant hazard in whitewater kayaking, as they form strainers— a sieve that will retain you as water rushes through, pinning you to the wood. Flipped over in a strainer, a boater can become trapped in their compressed boat and unable to escape. The only safe thing to do when pinned in a strainer is to exit your boat before this happens. Quickly utilizing Plan C can be a life-saving option.

So, we’re all going to swim—it’s inevitable, and sometimes life-saving. But, if we only plan to swim, we’ll be doing a lot more swimming than necessary. There is a fine line between being alert to life’s hazards and creating self-fulfilling prophecies. This past summer, my vestibular system was triggered while sailing and living on our sailboat. After my first bout of seasickness, I was nauseous from the slightest movement—and, a sailboat is always swaying, at least slightly. Knowing that prevention is the best cure, I wanted to plan for active seas: put on wrist bands, eat ginger, take the helm. Simultaneously, I wanted to not perseverate on the motion such that I caused myself to be nauseous unnecessarily.

Anticipatory anxiety is the fear of negative future outcomes: that you might be unable to accomplish what you wish, or that other catastrophes might befall you.  Anticipatory anxiety is common to anxiety disorders—and can be debilitating. For all of us, dread is an emotion that we will experience. We will, at times, be worried about the future to the point of preoccupation. Having a Plan C can save our lives—living in Plan C takes the joy out of life.

Another problem with dread, I believe, is it is based on inaccurate assumptions. We are thinking about the future, but imagining our current selves engaged in that future. For example, when I was pregnant, I anticipated not having the same freedom to go out in the evenings once my child was born. And, this was true. What I mis-anticipated was that I would feel regret about this constraint. I was so exhausted that going out was the last thing I desired. And there was joy in those nights at home that I never envisioned. I never imagined how intoxicated I would be by the smell of my baby’s head, looking into her eyes as she nursed, or watching her sleep. Who would long for anything else? My assumptions were inaccurate. It was not a sacrifice to stay home.

If I kayak, I will sometimes swim. If I sail, I will sometimes be seasick. So, how do we take prophylactic action to reduce these probabilities AND not dwell in fear of them?

I believe that underlying anticipatory fears is existential dread—the knowledge that all that currently exists will someday end, that all living things are ephemeral, that I and everyone I love will die. All that is, as I know it, will cease.

Facing our fears, and unearthing their roots, can help us to reduce our anticipatory anxiety and dread. My seasickness fear was that my concussion would preclude us from making sailing our lifestyle when we retire. Within that fear was the grief over the declines I have experienced since my brain injury. Going deeper still was acknowledging the inevitable declines and limitations I will experience as I age. And, at the very core, existential dread: I will someday die; will I die content with how I have lived my life? My last day being capable of sailing could be tomorrow. My last day could be tomorrow—or today. Probably not—and I hope not—but, it is a possibility.

Accepting that my life is time limited, and I don’t know when the buzzer will sound, can be very freeing. It can allow acceptance of the inevitable, which then grants the ability to be present with the current moment and experience. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron’s book, How We Live is How We Die, councils that we are constantly experiencing death and new beginnings: each exhalation, the end of each activity, and the setting of the sun each day is a transition. Chodron writes,

 Death is not something that happens at the end of life. Death happens every moment. We live in a wondrous flow of birth and death. The end of one experience is the beginning of the next experience, which quickly comes to its own end, leading to a new beginning. It's like a river continuously flowing.

As I sail, kayak, or move through my day, I am assured that someday, I will be unable to do these things. And, that allows me to be aware of the gift and joy of this moment, its limitations and its possibilities.

I would be sad to be unable to sail or kayak at this point in my life. But I don’t know if I will be sad about the transition when I am unable to do them. When it is my time to die, I hope I greet that moment with love and gratitude. Being aware that life is a constant transition—that we all will take our final swim someday—and not dreading or denying that fact, gives me room to find the joy available today.

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