I have been re-reading a wonderful book by Parker Palmer titled, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. In describing himself, he says (among other things), “…less gifted at slipping slowly into a subject than at jumping into the deep end to see if I can swim”. I was amused as I read this line because it so accurately describes my approach to new ideas and topics. And I was suddenly gifted with a memory, courtesy of the swimming metaphor.
We were visiting my Uncle Joe and his family in Louisville. I have no idea how old I was – between 5 and 10 years of age. Joe’s family belonged to a club, and we had gone to swim in the pool. I had never been in the deep end of a pool on my own, only holding tightly to a parent. But that afternoon, I knew I wanted to go in by myself. I bided my time, keeping an eye on my parents, and saw my opportunity. Just then, Joe looked me in the eye, and nodded. I knew he was fully aware of what I was up to, and with his complicity – I jumped!
Here is the part of that memory that bowled me over today, as I thought of it: even now, I can feel that water, the buoyancy of it, holding me up. I did not feel like I would sink — in fact, I felt like the water was exerting pressure upwards, waiting for me to figure out how to move across its surface. And I did figure it out.
Like most children without benefit of formal lessons, I discovered the dog-paddle first. Eventually, I learned how to tread water as well as the classic strokes. To this day, treading water, eyes closed and face up to the sun, may be my favorite water-based activity. I love to use as little energy and motion as possible to keep my head above the water line. I think this hearkens back to that recognition that the element of water will help me if I cooperate with it rather than fight it.
If I cooperate with it, instead of fight it. This thought brings me back to the concept of vocation. Parker Palmer says that, in struggling to find his right livelihood one of the things he learned about vocation “is how one’s values can do battle with one’s heart.” In my life, I’ve tended to fight this battle over the values of “security” and “comfort”. There is nothing wrong with these values. However, my heart resonates to a different vibration. Instead of security my heart longs for the vulnerability of openness, creative tension rather than comfort. And it is on this level that vocation is to be found. If I cooperate with the urge to become who I was born to be, vocation is what will hold me up and allow me to propel myself forward.
Hidden in the memory of my first dip in the deep end is another little gem. That day, I discovered confidence in my ability to take physical risks. I later jumped off both the low and high diving boards. My Dad and Uncle Joe encouraged me to keep trying new things, and were vociferous in their belief that I could succeed. As I strive to incorporate the idea that “risk taker” is part of who I was born to be, along with “educator” and “word lover”, I have a ready-made cheering squad. All I have to do is remember.