Courage is not possible in the absence of fear, rather courage is the ability to take positive action in the midst of fear. Behind the courage we admire is a trained skill: the ability to focus the mind and effort on something more important, something positive, something productive in that intimidating moment. Courage is a learnable skill that can be acquired and improved because it is based on the ability to FOCUS. It can even be learned and practiced in one area of life and then be applied to other areas of life as well.
I found an example today, while working with my daughter in the sea, that courage is not a genetic trait or a gift only in people who carry gun-belts or tool-belts, or only on those who wear special badges, courage a skill anyone can develop in order to stay moving forward under tough times.
Yesterday, while at the beach with my family, I invited one of my 13 year old twin daughters to swim straight out to the buoy line, about 100m from shore. She immediately balked, “I CAN’T”.
I’ve trained her to swim and I know she is physically capable of swimming that far, but as I probed further what she confessed was, “I am afraid.”
“Of what?” I asked.
“Of the deep water.”
“Of what in the deep water?” I asked again.
“I don’t know, it just deep!”
I said, “Ok. Then let’s swim out 30 strokes and let’s focus on the target where your hand will spear down to on each stroke. If you need to rest, just roll over and lay flat and rest. Don’t sit up- stay laying down in the rest position.” Standing in the shallows we examined where the hand should aim and why, then we took off.
30 strokes out and 30 strokes back. I could see her now aiming for the right target, but like many she was not really relying on her catch for propulsion. She was relying on the rapid kick, with the torso-arm movement a bit too delicate. So then I shared another focus point with her- hip thrust to drive that spearing hand forward. I explained the concept and demonstrated, and then we went 30 strokes out and back. I could clearly see her transfering power forward, from hip thrust, through the spine, to the hand spearing forward, to what I call the ‘Cutting Edge’ of her body on each stroke this time.
When we swam back to where the water was only about 3 meters deep, she noticed a clear plastic water bottle filled with pebbles sitting on the bottom (which children on the shore make as diving toys- and subsequently become the main litter in the water here). Using her natural curiosity, focusing on this object, we dove down. But she was afraid again, and would not dive deep. I went down, showing her how to plug her nose, and how I could stand on my head as if weightless below her. She started trying it too, diving down, twirling upside down, having fun.
I’d like to say that suddenly she was ready to swim way out to the buoy but she wasn’t. However, she did go out farther each time, and she did not panic. Instead she relaxed and focused. I removed her subjective barrier of “deep” water and gave her a objective boundary of “30 strokes”. Then, although her eyes remained opened, I gave her a focus point for her conscious mind of “hand to its target” on each stroke. So now she was counting with part of her brain while she was aiming for something small, achievable with each stroke with another part of her brain. Her awareness of the deepening water was not removed, but it was diminished by giving her mind something more engaging, more productive to focus on. Once she was empowered with something objective that she could do, she was not quite as intimidated by the ‘deep’ condition she could do nothing about. Her perspective started to change.
The same for when we came back to shore and started diving. It was an object of interest that suddenly removed the word “deep” from her description (which meant dangerous to her subconscious mind) and now was simply a “challenge.” “Deep” didn’t seem quite as DEEP anymore.
The fact is, there was no greater danger to her in 2 meters of water than there are in 15 meters of water out at the buoy (which you can still see the featureless sandy bottom quite clearly). But the perception of ‘vastness’ can trigger the subconscious belief that ‘I am powerless out here and therefore I am in danger’ and then the panicky emotions follow. That’s all part of another discussion perhaps.
The point again is this- we need courage to make progress during tough times, to take right action in the midst of opposition. Courage comes from FOCUS. Focus in the midst of intimidating circumstances is a skill we can learn and strengthen.
In open-water swimming I am (voluntarily) faced with conditions outside my control all the time. This is what makes the nature of OW swimming very different from pool swimming- the strokes are the same but the mindset isn’t. I can’t control the water, the critters, or the weather, but what I can control is what I focus on, and what actions I take in response to those conditions.
This well-developed ability to focus enables me to swim for hours without being overcome by boredom, anxiety, or fatigue. Instead I am energized by longer and longer distances. I am only beginning to discover the satisying power of focus in my own long-distance OW swimming, that ultra-distance athletes seem to feed on. But already I see how it directly relates to other areas of my life where I have been able to stand in great courage under hard times, or where I have failed to do so. I have even more hope now than ever that I do have potential to be courageous under circumstances that may still seem to be too great for me.
What professionals like soldiers, emergency room personnel, and fire-fighters have is training to FOCUS under fire- figuratively and literally. When they receive a medal or praise for their heroics it is their SKILL that we are recognizing, not their genetics. They have been TRAINED to focus under fire- they were not born that way. The ability to focus- to trust the trained brain to filter out billions of pieces of non-critical information in an instant, while zeroing in on the 100 pieces that matter in that moment- this is a skill that we can develop through deep practice and apply to our own life as well.
And, I believe that it is possible that this skill, even if developed in the deep practice of some recreational activity like swimming, can translate over into more relational areas of life where we are faced with a lot more complexity, a lot more uncertainty, where we face circumstances we cannot easily change and people we cannot (and should not try to) control. It is possible to live a courageous life without having to be in control of the thing around us.
In the face of all the uncertainty of life we need courage. And courage is a skill we can learn.