The Hardest Hard

The past several months have yielded multiple speaking engagements for me.  I’m always honored at the opportunity to tell people about my English Channel swim.  Every time I tell the story, I see the awe on their faces.  I put it into words and paint pictures they can only try to imagine.  I find a place in their minds where I can connect and I do my best to explain and expand and clarify and impress the challenge and the commitment and the magnitude of the support required.  There has always been one part of the story and one question that stumps me:

“How did you swim in the ocean at night?”

Honestly… I don’t know.

I have never found an answer that quite covers it.  To me, it is no small miracle.  In the preceding 4 years, I swam for a whole 2 hours at night in the ocean.  I never swam for more than half an hour at one time.  It terrified me every single time.  Terrified me.  I would put on my courage and go in, but I could never quiet the voices or tame the vivid imaginations.  When my first opportunity to swim the English Channel arrived, I apprehensively faced the fact that most of it would be at night.  I was surprised when the world darkened and the colors faded to black; I found myself not only able to continue – but content.  I was comfortable in the darkness.  When I saw the shadow of something swimming between the boat and me, I simply said, “I’m not going to worry about that.”  And I didn’t.  I didn’t worry at all.  Not for a second.  Even with the jellyfish stings and the dark and the vomit and the cold and the salt and the unknown.  I didn’t see any of that.  I saw the most beautiful, exquisite stars.  I saw the boat with the moon hovering over its bow.  I saw the lights of France and heard them calling me…

The truth is, I loved it.

Logic tells me it was just like swimming during the day.  Emotion tells me I was in my moment and nothing was going to stop me.  But something deeper than logic and emotion reminds me that that night spent in the ocean wasn’t the darkest moment of my life.  It wasn’t my hardest hard.  Swimming in the ocean is a sport.  It’s a physical demonstration.  As a part of the human condition, it’s one of life’s many electives.

The truth is that there are darker, more hopeless, more frightening things than swimming in the ocean at night.  Darkness is unavoidable.  We have no choice; night will fall.  We don’t get to opt out of getting diagnosed with life-altering diseases, confronting abusive situations, overcoming addictions, facing terrible accidents, or losing someone we love so dearly.   The harshest parts of life overtake us like the blanket of night, and all we have is to keep swimming.  Through our own vomit.  Through our worst fears.  Through the tidal changes and the shifting currents.   Twice as far and much longer than we ever anticipated.  All the natural world seems against us, and the ocean seems angry and it’s the blackest black you’ve ever seen…

But we keep going.

In the Channel, I kept going because I got to keep going.  Not because I had to.  I got to.  It was my privilege and my passion.  It’s the same in life.  We get to keep going.  We get to keep living.  We get to keep dreaming.  We get to hope.  We get to have the chance to be stronger than the darkness we didn’t choose.  We get to become something we never dared imagine we could be.  We get to be not just happy, but whole.  We get to see our own strength, beauty, determination, and excellence.  We get to leave a mark on the earth that shows the others coming behind us that there is always a way through.

The hardest hard is finding the place of gratitude and grace in the midst of the night you couldn’t avoid.  Find the unfettering peace of profound forgiveness.  Identify the inescapable and divine truths about yourself.  Look yourself in the eye.  Learn to fight for your life with dignity and honor.  Trace the threads of joy and contentment woven throughout your existence.

When our opportunity came, it came at night.  It came in the dark.  We got the fanfare of color in the sunset.  We got the company of the stars.  We got the silent, stern black water and the fluid, swallowing horizon without definition.

We got the truth: it can’t stay dark forever.

The sun will rise.  It must.  Until then, I will be the light.  I will love the stars.  I will be grateful and glad and content.  I will keep swimming.  Whatever!  …Because I will reach the other side and the darkness will end.  It must end somewhere.

And it will be the most beautiful sunrise.

“How did you swim in the ocean at night?”

I found a place of grace.  I felt mercy.  I dared to hope.  I practiced forgiveness over and over until it was a natural part of me.  I found the truth I always needed.  I celebrated the stars.  I let my light shine brighter than the darkness.  I knew love was there – as much as it felt so far away, I knew it was there.  I was never out there alone.  Never.

The truth is, I had every good thing I ever needed to make it through.

The truth is, I had no choice.

I had to swim in the ocean at night if I was going to swim.

And I was always going to swim.

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