When Ivan, my youngest, was four, he took swimming lessons not so he could swim in case he fell in the pool (which yeah, that's important, of course) but so he could swim when he dove in, did flips in, cannonballs in, belly flops in (intentionally), all of which he'd been trying even without knowing how to swim. And he was four. Four! Sure, I was proud of that tenaciousness. But I was also a little scared of the fearlessness this kid showed--and still does. He jumps into the pool, into trouble, into a crowd of kids, into life without worrying about how he's going to swim back to the side after he gets there. Daily life with him is unpredictable and erratic and frustrating and exhausting and insanity-producing . . . and exciting and wonderful and gratitude-inducing as well.
Not too long after starting those swim lessons, however, he showed a moment of fear. Ron took him to the deep end of the pool and, with the lifeguard's approval, let him onto the diving board. Now, Ivan had dived into a pool before, but the diving board was much lower than this one and fewer people were watching. Ivan got to the end and froze. He looked around, saw all of the eyes on him, and started to cry. He turned around and headed back for Ron, who assured him changing his mind was fine, and the two of them sat down for a few minutes before Ivan looked at the board and then back at Ron and said, "Daddy, I want to try again." So Ron took him back, Ivan headed to the end, and jumped in without hesitation.
More than his fearlessness without thinking of what will happen next, I admire this kid's willingness to do something he is afraid of. That was not me at four or six. That was not me in elementary school or middle school or high school or college. I still don't think that's me. Part of my refusal to try is my unwillingness to fail. Failure scares me to death. And I know that confession shows off my immaturity, my self-consciousness, and in turn my vanity. Because that's what fear of failure is, really, isn't it? The fear that someone else is going to see me as less than I want to be and the admission I'll have to make to myself that I have yet one other weakness, flaw, or area of complete ineptitude.
One of my favorite books is Moby Dick. Yes, really. I read it once in high school, once in college, and then again after graduation. I didn't like it at all the first time, tolerated it the second, and loved it the third. I was determined to like this book, and it became an obsession for me. One of my favorite lines is delivered by Starbuck, the first mate: "I will have no man in my boat who is not afraid of the whale."
We so often think of fear as paralyzing, which it can be and which it has been for me in many respects throughout my life. Lack of it, however, is recklessness. So how do we acknowledge our fears and learn to overcome them, use them to our advantage, without ignoring them completely and putting ourselves and others--whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually--at risk?
Ahab wasn't afraid of Moby Dick. Ahab hated Moby Dick. He wanted his revenge on Moby Dick. We all have a great white whale in our past that has beaten us, even ripped our leg off. Do we go after it again and again until it destroys us and those we love, claiming courage rather than stupidity and megalomania? Ahab said, "Ignorance is the parent of fear." He claimed to KNOW the whale, and therefore had no fear of it. So does knowledge shield us from ignorance? Yes. But stupidity? No.
This is where I am in my parenting lately. I want my kids to be courageous. I want them to tackle what I never would have dreamed of tackling at their age. I want them to ignore what people say they can't do, even ignore what their fear is telling them they can't do. I want them to have huge dreams and I want them to do what it takes to make them come true. And I'll help as much as they let me. But I don't want the whale--that uncontrollable aspect of nature and human nature--to beat them. I don't want them to get out on that dinghy and think, "Crap. Mom should have told me I didn't have the right life vest on for this one. And she should have told me that freaking whale is a lot bigger up close."
School starts here in another week. My oldest starts high school. My second oldest starts junior high. My daughter starts fourth grade--the first year she'll get actual grades and not "shows improvement" or "needs improvement." And my fearless six-year-old starts elementary school where he'll mix with the big kids instead of being king of his own little castle at the kindergarten. It's a scary year ahead.
So the most I can do right now is agree with them that the diving board is more frightening than the kiddie pool. Then I'll cheer them on to get back up there anyway, and keep my fingers crossed that nothing in the water is going to surprise any of us.