There were several signature experiences growing up, where I figured that, somehow, I managed to miss those classes on expected boy behavior that other chips off the old block had obviously attended and mastered. It was like that at every summertime pool, lake, river, or swimming hole into which I have ever… inch…by…painful…inch…tentatively… immersed… my…self. Don’t get me wrong. I love swimming. But here’s how it would always go down. Out the station wagon door, or back door to the cabin or house, would shoot a wad of boys, including me. We would start off together pell-mell, a Norman Rockwell portrait of exaggerated boy enthusiasm. At lake’s edge is where the sorting would occur. The proper boys would plunge in first. For my pals, several leg splashes, and a quick dive, and presto, the games were afoot! Me? I was inching in: ankles first, calves next, then thighs, and several excruciating minutes later, my chest. All the while, I would be dodging splashes and impatient attempts to hasten the conclusion of my painstakingly long baptismal ritual. Once in the water, you couldn’t get me out, but this tortured approach to getting used to swim water is how it has (literally) gone down for me, my entire life. And then, the pandemic came to town.
For those who know my chosen hometown of Saint Louis, you know that there is really no respectable summertime body of water for the swimming enthusiast. Usually, lap swimming at my local gym suffices to keep me in shape until I can get myself to a proper lake, bay, or ocean. With the pandemic in full swing this summer, an outdoor pool was the only safe option available. This worked more than well enough until somewhere toward the end of September and beginning of October. If I wanted to swim, I had to get into a pool that felt more like Lake Superior than the Gulf of Mexico. Watching people older than me threading their way up and down the lanes told me that frost bite, or sudden heart malfunction weren’t likely. “One excuse down,” I anxiously noted. I queried an athletic looking, age-similar woman, who paused at my end of the pool. Somehow she must have snuck into the boy classes that I had missed, because I saw her dive in, and start swimming five minutes ago. “Is it worth it?” I asked, “or too painful?” With the kindness of a mother addressing a toddler, she assured me that I would be used to it in no time. Another excuse stripped away. In that moment, I intuited the boy wisdom I had ignored through the long decades of my life. In one clarifying instant, I could see why no one inches a lobster into its cooking pot. Too painful! Not humane! My usual rituals were useless here. What I had mistaken for a courage (that I lacked) in my boyhood colleagues may have been simply a wise gambit to avoid needless pain.
Like Dan Jarrio, Bob Dickerman, Jerry Meier, and my brothers Bob, Mike, Dan, and Phil… like all the other boys before me, like my surrogate mother in the pool, I turned my mind off; I jumped in! The cold water took my breath away. I swam fast to get my bones warmed. Several minutes later, I observed that I was comfortable enough to find my rhythm and get an exhilarating half-a-mile in before the pool closed. At the edge of every pool since then, I have had the same thought, “If I could dive right into that cold October pool, I can dive into this as well!” Just like that, a new habit.
What have you been inching toward? What is that thing that has the potential for looping you into a virtuous cycle where one good thing could lead to another good thing, and perhaps another and another?
In his research on happiness, professor, author, and acclaimed presenter, Shawn Achor, has noted that, frequently, the distance between a desired habit and an achieved habit is the amount of activation energy required to initiate episodes of practicing the new habit. For example, want to learn how to play the guitar? Reduce the activation energy it takes to pick it up and play it. Do not store the guitar in a case in the closet. Place it on a stand in the TV room in front of the channel changer. Want to adopt a habit of morning running? Sleep in your running clothes, with your shoes and socks at the foot of your bed. Want to eat better? Keep healthy and tasty choices in front of you, and addictive foods out of sight (better still, out of the house). The same wisdom works for meditation and prayer. I know someone who meditates while the morning tea is brewing. I pray with the British Jesuits on their daily podcast, “Pray as You Go” for ten of the thirty minutes of my rowing every morning.
What are you standing on the edge of doing? Into what life-giving habit have you been trying to inch yourself? Perhaps getting past the pain on the front end of it could be achieved by reducing the activation it takes to get it done in some practical way. Is it time to take the plunge?