During the second World War, service men in the United States Air Force were issued flotation devices as part of their standard flight suit. The vest when inflated made the men appear to be rather large chested resulting in the vest gaining the nickname Mae West, referencing the popular American movie star who was rather well endowed. While indeed a sexist term of a bygone era, the synonym is still listed among the choices for the term life jacket or life vest. This flotation device is designed to save lives, because even as the most experienced swimmer understands; there are limits to what the human body can endure when submerged in an environment not its own. A fact that was made traumatically clear to me early in my experiences with large bodies of water.
I’m not sure it’s possible to drown while wearing a life jacket, but it doesn’t prevent one from feeling as if they are drowning. This was my experience as a child endeavoring to keep up with my older cousins one summer afternoon long ago. We were camping on vacation and as I chased my older cousins beyond the shallows of an Arkansas lake, my feet were swept out from under me by the swirling current. Panic ensued and I began to cry as I flailed about in the depths. My head bobbed up and down in the water as the wind driven whitecaps crashed over me. Ample amounts of lake water filled my mouth. Coughing, crying, and convinced that I was going under I fought against the uncooperative water to get back to the safety of the shore. I now know that it was unlikely that I was in any real danger, because my parents had the foresight to make sure I was wearing the life vest, but reflecting on the moment all these years later, I can still feel the terror that convinced me that I was not going to survive. My Dad stood on the lake shore offering encouraging words that I don’t fully remember, they weren’t all that reassuring, as I think he was trying to teach me to swim from a distance. Not all that helpful or effective.
Eventually my cousins came to my rescue and guided me back to the shore. As I staggered onto the beach, the water that filled my lungs was dislodged onto the sand, and eventually I regained my bearings reacclimating to the environment much more conducive to my flourishing. I shed myself of the life jacket and found another distraction to occupy my attention. The vest that preserved my life in the harsh environment quickly became an impediment to enjoying the more welcoming conditions. This event and perhaps some others similar to it, (unrelated and insignificant if taken as individual events) in addition to a youth spent in problematic religious environments, and the everyday stressors of navigating this world have contributed to moments of emotional despair and mental anguish in my life.
In fact, years ago I had a therapist tell me that I exhibited symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, at the time it was somewhat of a mystery as I didn’t have the perspective of maturity to understand the life events that obviously impacted me in profound ways. I now understand that many of these moments most likely had a cumulative effect on my responses and dispositions as I’ve matured. And while I do know that there are many people who have experienced profound trauma and suffered a great deal more than I ever experienced, this doesn’t negate my experiences, or yours, if you are like me. Indeed, I’m convinced, countless numbers of people have experienced all kinds of traumatic episodes that they fail to recognize as such, or the collective impact it continues to exact on their mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
As a result of these cumulative experiences, on occasion in my life, I’ve had what I can only describe as panic attacks. I intentionally use the word description because none of this has been diagnosed by a mental health professional. But what I have experienced is very similar to those feelings I had as I thrashed about in the lake all those summers ago. Feelings of overwhelming helplessness with no ability to gain any footing or lacking any way of leveling myself mentally or emotionally, resulting in physical manifestations of crying, shouting, and convulsing about while breathing heavily with an increasing heart rate. While these episodes are rare they do happen to me. My guess is that many people may experience things like this, but it just isn’t something we talk about all that much. We tend to suffer silently and learn to manage when these manifestations occur as to keep them out of sight. Of course, I understand that there are those who suffer with these kinds of episodes in far more challenging ways than what I’m describing. So, for the sake of conversation, perhaps it is helpful to describe what I have experienced as private break downs or simply emotional episodes when the accruing weight of life just lands with a thud. This is my experience, and in those moments, I’m instantly transported to that moment when I was reaching for the safety of the shore, but it was out of my reach.
As I am prone to do, I connect these feelings to my philosophical and theological journeys. Consequently, in those moments of emotional breakdown, I choose to believe that I’m buoyed by a love that is far more powerful than anything I can imagine. Grace keeps me afloat. What I find interesting is that all too often, I am tempted to shed myself of this gift, relying on my own abilities when in more favorable and welcoming environments. When in all actuality, I’m in constant need of help. And while this understanding doesn’t necessarily resolve my issues, it is liberating nevertheless to simply know.
As John Updike writes, “By knowing, we dissolve the world enough to move through it freely. We dispel claustrophobia. Think of the auto mechanic, how greasily graceful his sequential descent into the problem as opposed to the Dumbo (me) who thumps the hood angrily upon the obdurate puzzle of his non-starting engine, and crushed his thumb. By knowing, we dissolve the veneer our animal murk puts upon things, and empathize with God’s workmanship.” In my attempts to shed myself of grace, substituting my own abilities instead, I’ve only succeeded in diminishing the light of my experience, relinquishing the ability to be helpful to anyone.
This is an occupational hazard for those like me who position themselves as inspirational influences on the rest of the world. Again Updike wisely observes, “It is hard, of course, to console or advise professional consolers and advisers; rote phrases, professional sympathy, even an emphatic patience are brusquely shunted aside. At a convention of masseurs no one turns his back. So we learn to say nothing as a way of saying it all.”
So, I’m saying something. If for no other reason but to let you know that I too, am having trouble swimming in these waters. Thank you, Mae West. Thank you God’s grace!