And there I was, like Splat the Cat, splayed across the deck of a Sunfish sailboat …
As a family, we spend time together at a lake each summer. It’s a welcome chance to slow down, connect with each other, relax, and recuperate from the business of life. During this past year, our family, like most others have been through many stressful transitions. We were looking forward to this time together, to feeling the deeper sense of interconnectedness that comes from being in nature and away from normal daily living.
The last few years, my 14-year-old son has been learning to sail a Sunfish, a small, one-person boat that’s great for beginners learning sailing basics. The sailing bug bit him hard this year, and he spent hours alone on the water, experimenting with sail trim and wind conditions; working towards understanding the innerworkings of sailing. One afternoon, he asked if I wanted to go for a sail with him. I said, “Sure,” and we headed out; him in the single-person cockpit, and me perched on the tiny deck behind the mast. As we got underway, he casually remarked, “You’re going to have to duck when I tack.” For those, not familiar with sailing (as I was not too many years ago), the bottom edge of a Sunfish sail is attached to a long metal tube, called the “boom.” It’s perpendicular to the deck, and only a couple of feet above it. As the boat turns at different angles to the wind, it sweeps overhead, sometimes abruptly, requiring the sailor to duck down or be whacked in the head. I may have mentioned that a Sunfish is a one-person boat. This meant I was seated on the deck, without the benefit of the small foot well where the budding sailor could crouch while tacking, thus avoiding the aluminum bludgeon.
We were having a really good time and established a system to manage the boom: he would say, “tack,” I would lay down on my belly until the boom crossed over, and then shift my weight to the other side and sit back up. A summer storm was expected later that afternoon, and while we were out the wind started gusting up, and we started picking up speed. My son was experimenting with the position of the sails and the direction of the wind, looking for optimal speed. With the heavier wind, the tiny boat was heeling hard (pitching up on one edge), with some bigger gusts threatening to knock us all the way over. Heeled over, water rushing over the side and deck, I kept telling my son “not so much.” When he tacked (turned), the boom violently swung overhead, and whichever edge had been submerged, was suddenly high up in the air. With nowhere to put my feet, and little time to get my head out of harm’s way, I found myself splayed out face down on the deck like Spat the Cat. Arms and legs spread wide, white-knuckle gripping the high side of the boat, with feet hooked and submerged on the low side. In short, holding on for dear life. I was drenched from all angles, as I desperately tried not to get thrown off into the choppy, chilly water. I’m pretty sure that all the folks on the lake that day knew my son’s name; I was screaming it over and over. To his credit, he kept his cool and did his best, but he had never sailed in such high, gusting wind before. That, and he seemed to be having a spectacular time! At that point my feelings of terror started to rise, and I thought, “OK, I’m a psychologist, I teach other people how to deal with stressful situations: I know how to handle this.” I tried a strategy that often works for me and my clients and asked myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Unfortunately, I didn’t like the answers that were popping into my head. Next option, mindfulness. I tried some deep breathing to help relax my body and mind. The need to maintain a death grip, plus the face full of water made that unworkable too. Next option: lean into the feeling, into the fear. This is a difficult concept to grasp; as humans, our instinct is to avoid or distract ourselves from unpleasant emotions, but sometimes the fastest way through fear or pain is to face it head-on and feel it completely. That’s what I did. I owned the fear and allowed myself to really feel it. Now, it sure didn’t go away, but I noticed that by embracing, really experiencing what I was feeling, I also felt a surge of excitement, a sense of being truly alive and a feeling of exhilaration. This affirmed what I already believe; you can’t fully feel the good parts of life if you don’t also let yourself feel the hard parts.
Most of us are facing increased pain and suffering in one way or another because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is more reasonable fear for ourselves and our loved ones. We’ve been cut off from many of the coping strategies that have helped us get through hard times before. We are all living in a very uncertain time. Maybe by allowing ourselves to feel the anxiety, sadness, and loss, we will discover some new ways to be resilient, open our hearts in different ways to others, and reevaluate our values and priorities.