The 100 Breaststroke Moment
It all came down to the 100 breaststroke.
Achieving the state meet qualifying time in this event had been my dream for the past three years, and I had fallen just short a year earlier. Now I was a senior, ready to finally make it happen. My “prelim” time from the previous day had fallen one second shy of the cut, and I now had one final chance to turn the dream into a reality. My head and legs were shaven to reduce drag, I had on the most hydro-dynamic Speedo™ I could find, and every ounce in my being longed to touch that wall in state cut time.
A second seems like nothing, but in a race like this a second is an eternity, the difference between a fancy after-party and re-watching Pride & Prejudice with a gallon of ice cream.
I’ll spare you the drama: I once again fell a second short of the after-party.
As I dragged myself out of the pool, the weight of disappointment and shame hit me like a ton of bricks. I would have given anything to disappear from that pool deck. To that point in my young life, it was as worthless as I had ever felt.
Six weeks ago, when Chloe entered the world and was placed on Kendahl’s chest, Kendahl began counting her fingers and toes. Evidently this is a common “first check” for new mothers. I’ve heard men say the first thought in their head upon having a girl is, “Well, looks like we have to pay for the wedding!” For me, though, the first thing that ran through my head when I got a good look at her was, “nothing bad is ever allowed to happen to her.” She was so little, so precious, so pure, and I wanted to mandate this new rule to the world. The logistics of such a mandate was a matter to figure out at a later time.
Of course, these are natural parental instincts that have continued for both of us in Chloe’s first six weeks. When we see her face begin to contort into a frown, her skin reddening, and hear her soft, small voice beginning to cry, something inside of us shatters. We have this innate parental urge to protect her at all costs, to make sure everything is well with her.
This makes sense, and there’s good reason for it. Whether she’s tired, hungry, or in need of a diaper change, the stage of life for us right now is comprised of figuring out what she needs and subsequently giving her that thing. At times, though, it’s a giant pinwheel of uncertainty:
Oh, Chloe’s screaming again tonight? Either something is really wrong and we should call the pediatrician or she’s exhausted. That’s probably it – she’s probably just tired. Well, I don’t know… Should we hop on WebMD? Perfect, I wasn’t looking to sleep tonight anyway!
This week we watched the Netflix special Brené Brown: The Call to Courage. In the special, Brown tells a story about her daughter Ellen having to swim the 100 breaststroke in a meet, a tough race for any twelve-year old. Brown jokes about how slow Ellen was, and how she begged her mom to let her consider skipping the race. She told Ellen that was an option, but encouraged her by saying, “sometimes winning is not coming in first; sometimes winning is doing the really brave thing. Maybe winning for you is just coming off the block and getting wet.”
For the longest moment, Ellen doesn’t show up to the block. The heat is about to start, she’s not there, the other swimmers are up on the blocks… and, at the last second, she joins them and dives in. At one point, she looks around her and can’t see any other swimmers, energizing her with confidence that she is winning the race. What she doesn’t realize is that every other swimmer has finished the race and the next heat’s swimmers are already up on the blocks. After she finally walks over to her parents, she declares, through tears, exhaustion and heartbreak, “That sucked. But I was brave, and I won.”
Brown looks at her feet, pauses, and gets choked up in this moment of disclosure, and I’m on the couch covering my own sobs with a blanket. The message is that courage and vulnerability are synonymous. Courage is just showing up; it’s being willing to stand up on the block and get wet no matter the outcome, especially when we’re terrified. This means that we will get our you-know-whats handed to us at times. But somehow, just by showing up, we gain something we never could have otherwise. Brown’s research over twenty years has shown that when we are courageous and vulnerable, it instills in us love, belonging, and joy. Our brains, we now know, are hardwired for such things.
I’ve experienced these findings in real ways. There’s something inside of me today that wouldn’t be there had I achieved that state cut. My faith has grown deeper over the years as I’ve experienced the pain of not being picked for the team, not getting the job, and, certainly, the 100 breaststroke moment. As Brown has written, hope is a function of struggle. Maybe that’s why biblical author James wrote to a group of struggling dispersed Jewish Christians, who faced more than I ever have, Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Despite my grand, international mandate to alleviate all of Chloe’s suffering forevermore, all I can do for her right now is change her diaper and hold her. As I watch her grow, I realize I’ll never be able to prevent struggle for her, and in a strange way, I’m thankful for that. When she has her 100 breaststroke moment, whatever form that may take, all I will be able to do is put my arms around her and say, with confidence, “You were brave, and you won.”