Treading Water: A Zoo Story





The moment we entered the polar bear exhibit, I saw him. A giant of a bear, up against the glass wall of his habitat’s pool, treading water. His powerful front paws paddled at a frantic pace, constantly working to keep him afloat. I was fascinated by his size, his concentration and his seeming oblivion to the spectators crowding the glass in front of him.

As we stood there, other visitors began commenting on the energy and exertion required to keep him afloat. The human tendency to project our own experience onto other beings asserted itself quickly. I heard comments such as, “Poor thing, he looks scared!” or “He looks so tired! Why doesn’t he just stop?” Most people in the room were enthralled by the bear treading water, myself included. I snapped several quick photos to capture the moment. However, there was a growing concern among the humans that something might be wrong. We knew nothing about polar bears, really. But if it were one of us in that pool, the activity we were witnessing would indicate a problem. So we engaged in blatant anthropomorphising, worried about the poor bear.

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Then I noticed a small child with her face pressed against a panel of glass several feet away. She giggled, then looked at her adult companion with awe-filled eyes. I moved over a step, and saw a second polar bear. This one was swimming laps, backstroking across the pool. On the far side, he executed a perfect turn (one even Michael Phelps would be jealous of), then swam low across the bottom of the pool, facing the glass. When he arrived at the glass panel, he practically rammed it with his nose, coming face-to-face with the child before swimming vertically up the glass to the pool’s surface. Once there, he put his powerful hind paws against the glass and pushed off.

Most of the spectators in the room remained fixated on the bear treading water. However, my friend Kate and I moved into the child’s spot when she and her adult moved on. This lap-swimming bear swam with a steady rhythm, each rotation exactly the same as the previous rotation. However, he appeared happy, playful, even joyful by comparison to the bear who shared his habitat.

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I put my forehead against the glass in order to come face-to-face with the bear as he arrived at the glass. We made eye contact, and I found myself giggling almost exactly as the child had previously. On another lap, I placed my hand on the glass so that it met his hind paw as it pushed off – the massive paw was more than double the size of my hand.

I was so fascinated I forgot to take any photos of the second bear. When Kate and I finally left the polar bear enclosure, I felt happy, infected by the positive energy we imagined flowing from the backstroking bear.

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All told, we spent maybe ten or fifteen minutes observing the polar bears that morning. But I’ve found myself thinking about them frequently and have, I think, discovered a meaningful allegory for myself in the swimming bears.

Like the first bear, I have spent a lot of time treading water – maintaining the status quo, remaining in the same place, holding steady. At times, treading water is a good thing – it allows us to conserve energy in the midst of turbulent times, can act as a respite from exhaustive or strenuous activity. But treading water can also be about fear – of the unknown, of change, of moving into the open water that signifies life’s many possibilities. The equivalent of treading water in our lives requires the same kind of frantic paddling we witnessed in the polar bear, as we avoid people, dodge opportunities, make excuses to remain the same. To remain unchanged and unchallenged – even if that also means we remain unhappy or unfulfilled.

The lap swimming bear, by contrast, was striking out boldly in a direction. On each circuit, there were similar actions, though each time he came along the pool’s floor toward the glass, there was the possibility of discovering something/someone new! His whole energy spoke of play, joy and willingness. In our lives, we have to accept that we don’t get to know everything in order to move forward. In order to experience the wide range of life and experiences we wish for and want.

As I’ve ruminated on these two polar bears, I’ve realized that each of them was working hard as they engaged in their different activities. They were likely burning similar calories, using similar reserves of energy. Yet their demeanors and the meaningfulness of what they were doing was experienced by those watching very differently. For us humans, treading water is an activity that outlives its usefulness fairly quickly. If we want our lives to have meaning, a sense of purpose, of growth, we have to swim. We have to strike out into unknown and uncharted waters. We must learn to do so with our eyes open and with a readiness to see whatever is waiting for us on the next turn.

I can’t speak for polar bears.  But for me, if staying in the same place or moving forward require roughly the same amount – though different kinds – of work, why not move? In the future, when I find myself treading water in life instead of proceeding in the direction of my dreams, I hope the images of those polar bears will come to mind. I hope they’ll remind me to pick a direction and go. I won’t know for sure where I’ll end up, but I’m certain that I’ll come face to face with something new – and in the process, become someone new.




The Deep End

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.