I have a confession: I’m afraid of the ocean. Or rather getting in the ocean, but not like that clear, blue ocean you see in places like the Caribbean, but that murky stuff. I know, crazy, when I talk so much about the beach, live within walking distance of it, and dream of building my own beach house. Yet as a little boy, I had what I consider the closest near-death experience of my life. As nice of a summer day as it was, I was one of only a couple other people that I remember seing out in the ocean as the tide started to go out. As the waves got bigger, I started to drift further out, getting caught in a rip current, and trying to swim fervently back to shore, but to no avail. I just remember thinking to myself, “Well, this is it. And at our family reunion nonetheless.”
While I have a tumultuous relationship with getting in the ocean, my relationship with swimming pools is nothing short of bliss. From as early as I can remember to present day, I’ve always enjoyed being in swimming pools, from taking my first swimming lessons and organizing cannonball contests as a kid to taking classes and swimming laps today as an adult, I’ve always enjoyed swimming in a pool more than any other cardiovascular activity. But why swimming pools and not the ocean?
It’s always funny to think back to when I was a kid, just some of the games we would come up with, often by accident. One such game involved my friends and I turning the ceiling fan on high, followed by us sitting in a circle underneath it, and gathering a pile of objects that we would throw in the direction of the rotating fan blades one by one. We would each take turns, but immediately shrink back every time an object was thrown toward the fan because we didn’t know which direction the fan would hit it back at us. Silly, right? But that’s just what we did in rural North Carolina.
Nonetheless, my response to the object making contact with the fan is often my same response when getting in the ocean and confronting other fears. I shrink back, not knowing what the next step may bring. It’s for that reason that I prefer swimming pools. I know at all times how deep it is, what’s beneath me, and how far it is to the end of the pool. I have control over the circumstances. The ocean is a different body of water altogether. I can’t throw a penny into it and see where it lands or look ahead and see what the depth is. I’m not scared of the ocean; I’m scared of the unknown.
And so, this is how we approach life. We have before us miles and miles of hardly touched oceans to explore by diving, surfing, fishing, and swimming, yet we choose to swim the same strokes in the same swimming pool that everyone else does. It’s our natural instinct; it’s what we know. It’s where our friends go and where we feel comfortable. It’s unchanging. Yet we complain about why we don’t have the same wonder as our childhood, feel the same zest in our work, and feel the same thrill from sex with our partners like we once did.
As much as I huffed and puffed and tried to tearfully explain to my parents the desperation of the situation I had just been rescued from, they only tried to soothe me by encouraging me to shake it off. And so it was, I wasn’t as close to dying that day in the ocean years ago like I thought I was. It turns out I wasn’t the only one in the ocean. My athletic cousin also was and she was able to come to my aid and quickly and gracefully help guide me back to shore.
Just like I wasn’t alone in the ocean that day, we’re not as alone as we think we are on the road of life. There’s always someone that can either be strong for us when we can’t or be that person who empathizes with us because they’ve been through similar experiences. It’s often these situations and people who really allow us to not just confront, but rise above our fears. I’ve faced some scary things the last couple years. Quitting my job to become a freelance writer, going through a divorce, traveling long term, and moving 2,500 miles away. They’ve at times been hard, but the lasting joy and sense of fulfillment as a result of taking these fears on, mixed with the friendships I have made along the way is simply unrivaled.
I love my life in San Francisco. I don’t know if I’ve ever been somewhere that felt so balanced and homey. Yet it’s for this reason that I’ve got to leave. But not for good. I’ll be setting off for three months, from house sitting in Northern California wine country to taking my first cruise to Alaska to touring through Europe before coming back home to San Francisco in September. It’s scary, but like setting off to travel nearly two years ago, it just feels like the right thing to do. What’ll be different is that this time, I don’t want to leave. I’ll miss it and when I say that I’ll miss San Francisco, I really mean that I’ll miss my ties here. But I think that just like my stint of long-term travel a couple years ago refined me and made me who I am today, this trip will have the same effect.
In the meantime, I’m getting back in the ocean. No, not figuratively, but literally. I’ve got surf lessons scheduled for Saturday in Santa Cruz, California. I’ve scheduled them twice in the last few months and both times I’ve gotten sick just prior. I’m hoping that three’s a charm. I’m anxious, as I’m undertaking it solo in a city I’ve never been to. That, and it’s living a dream I’ve had since I was a kid: To learn how to surf. Maybe I’ll hate it and swear off getting in dark, murky ocean waters again, but then, maybe I’ll like it so much that I come home with a surfboard. Either way, as travel so often does, I think I’ll come back this weekend better than when I left.
How has travel helped you conquer your fears?