Things a cold water swim can teach you about life
I felt it in my toes first. The cold slipway underneath my bare feet showed no mercy while the cool spring air felt like a stranger on my newly uncovered skin.
Lough Hyne is beautiful.
I mean, really, incredibly beautiful.
The clear water ripples in the breeze, showing a distortion of soft sand and reedy pebbles below. The lake is apparently freshwater but there’s a marine stream where a little gap in the landscape lets the seawater in. They say botanists and marine biologists go wild for it, the extraordinary biodiversity drawing scientists from far and wide.
But I knew just one thing: I wanted to swim in it.
I longed to swim but I was scared. I longed to swim but what if I literally froze for the rest of the day? There was nowhere to shower and warm up. Not even a coffee van. I longed to swim but even as I edged my feet slowly into the shallows, the shock of icy cold water terrified me.
Time was ticking. I had hung around with my bags for too long already, the others teasing me about my indecision. Finally I pulled out my swim things and changed awkwardly beneath my micro-towel and poncho. That small action changed everything. Standing there in my swimming costume, I realised I was committed
I still didn’t know if I could do it, but I knew somehow, I had to.
Because while it’s a fairly quiet spot, it’s not abandoned. From the same slipway where I stood oscillating between fear and courage, a young girl was pushing off in a kayak. There was a scattering of others too - mellow walkers stopping for a lakeside rest and more decisive bathers in various stages of post-swim sogginess. With their swim socks and gloves, they looked like efficient swimmers, regulars, no messing about.
I gazed at them wistfully. When you’re standing on the shore – unsure - it doesn’t take long for the doubts to come creeping up. The questions. Why did you even want this anyway? What are you trying to prove? Are you trying to be someone you’re not?
Or maybe, just maybe, I’m trying to be someone I am.
Maybe it’s the memory of how much I always loved swimming in the open air. Maybe it’s more to do with that person I already was, trying to find a bit of elbow room in a life where there are less chances for this.
And reasoning has no place here anyway, because once you’re standing on that slipway in your swimsuit, with even the smallest milling around of people, it is somehow harder to turn back than to plunge into the icy water. This is the joy and pain of accountability. When we’ve made it clear to others that we plan to do something, even if we are not sure of ourselves, even if we are kind-of-ever-so-slightly terrified, it suddenly becomes easier to move forward than to give up. And when it’s something we actually deep down long to do, that can only be a good thing.
There is a lot to be learnt about life from that moment before a shockingly-cold swim. How to take the plunge. How, once others know you are serious about this decision, they look on expectantly.
Something similar happens when I step into the inviting but scary waters of a new project. I spend such a long time at the water’s edge, doubting myself, wondering if I’m trying to be someone I’m not. But by stepping out and ‘swimming’ I find those doubts frozen away by the shock of the cold and by the very action I was scared of.
And then I realise, It is not about trying to be someone you’re not. It is about how, when you do it, you find you actually are that person.
By stepping in and swimming, you become that someone.
So in I went, wading through the gently sloshing water and, eventually, launching myself forward.
And yes, it was cold.
And yes, it was also fantastic. Feeling the water holding me, buoying me, the cleanness of it and the freezing cold wake-up call of it.
But mostly, my biggest ‘yes’ was that I actually did it.
And I know a big part of that ‘doing’ was simply in getting into my swim things and walking to the water’s edge. It shouted my intentions loud and clear and made it nigh on impossible to do anything else without a massive dent to my pride.
Sometimes, when we’re scared of the thing we really want to do, we just need that little bit of accountability, we need to get our metaphorical swim stuff on and walk to the water’s edge. Once we’re there and everyone knows, there aren’t many other options than to go ahead and take the plunge.
And it may be difficult, and it may be shockingly cold.
But it will also be incredible.