I was swimming this morning, slightly hungover and not quite up for it, approaching fifty lengths when I thought to myself ‘you’re good, call it a day.‘ I was aiming for sixty, but was breathing heavy, beaten by the beers from the night before. So I almost quit, and when considering doing so I remembered something I’d pushed to the back of my mind, something rearing its shameful head after ten years shaken aside. It was a memory from my school days, when I was maybe thirteen or fourteen, and when P.E was still mandatory for the year group. I was never too keen on my physical education lessons, having grown my limbs out too long too quickly, too unsteady on my feet and gifted with the grace of a three-legged gazelle. I could move fast, but I couldn’t move with any kind of elegance. I used to like playing football and basketball, as much I sucked at them, but I loathed athletics or gymnastics. I always used to fall at the first hurdle, and I wish I could say that the usage of the phrase was purely metaphorical.
Anyway, the memory which came to me as I was coming up for air after a steady sinking, was of a lesson involving a trampoline. I remembered the gruff instructor, and the way my gym shorts always seemed to be too short – maybe because of my flamingo legs. I remembered the embarrassment of having to climb up onto the trampoline and bounce five times before attempting some sort of acrobatic feat. I was never any good at the acrobatic feats. The memory in question was concerned with a short sequence – you’d bounce, come down on your backside, pop up, twist, and then come down on your front side before popping back up and then leaving the trampoline to rapturous applause from your classmates. It seemed easy, and I always nailed the backside part, but when it came to landing on my front I always drew in my knees at the last second, scraping them on the coarse material and bouncing an inch above the surface before settling into it, defeated. When up in the air I would twist to face the trampoline, see the trampoline rushing towards me, and then abort mission. It felt almost instinctual, as if I had no control over my sudden cowardly contortion. I attempted the move probably ten times, my shame and embarrassment deepening with each failed effort, my face a steadily intensifying crimson red to match my skimmed knees. Try as I might, I couldn’t do it. I simply couldn’t face the landing, literally.
I can’t say why that memory came back to me, or why it did so when I was almost out of my depth in the deep end. It just did, no longer repressed with all of my other teenage traumas. I saw the face of the instructor, disappointed while also confused – as if there was no reason for my strange refusal to face-plant on the trampoline. That hurt, that look, but everything seemed to hurt after that session – my pride, my legs, my ego. I’d let him down, and I’d let myself down as well, unable to pull off something so simple. I felt like a little kid on sports day, breaking the egg and dropping the spoon before the race had even started. I haven’t been on a trampoline since.
I guess that giving up in the pool would have hurt as well; I would’ve been kicking myself internally for bailing when I could have seen it out. I would have known that those extra ten lengths wouldn’t have killed me. Worst case scenario, I may have needed a small favour from the lifeguards stationed on either side. There was nothing to lose in continuing until sixty, but plenty of hurt to be found if I’d climbed out at fifty-one. So I saw it out, barely hitting my goal before retreating exhausted to the showers, drained but oddly proud. I stood in the showers afterwards, slowly recovering, and I thought about that urge to push on instead of calling it there and then. So then I started thinking about my 2016 as a whole, and how thought processes like that one have characterised some of the internal changes I’ve made throughout the year. There was times last year when I would have called it a day without hesitation. I’d resent it, but I’d normally accept it and move on, convincing myself I’d just do an extra few lengths the next day. Rationalising. I spent quite a lot of time rationalising my own failings. I’m sure that I could spend time rationalising that refusal to hit the trampoline with my face, but I’m not sure what kind of excuse I could come up with which would have lessened the intensity of the look on the instructors face, and my own internalised pain afterwards. I didn’t have any excuses, not really. The refusal to hit that trampoline was a result of fear. I was afraid, simple as that. I was afraid of something pretty dumb, but I was afraid regardless. Hitting a trampoline isn’t the same as drowning. I used to be afraid a lot, and I suppose that I’m not anymore – at least not to the same extent. Put me on that trampoline now, and I’d happily attempt a triple back-flip even if it meant I didn’t make it through the first one and instead sprung off backwards and onto the wooden floor of the gym. I’d bruise my back instead of my ego. I’d like to think that I’d try it, even if I wouldn’t nail it. Hell, I definitely wouldn’t nail it.
That emphasis on trying, even if not necessarily succeeding, has been my focus this year, and I’ve done alright with it. I tried to change my mindset, my outlook and my approach to everyday life, and for the most part I feel like I succeeded. The fear of failure doesn’t faze me a great deal anymore, and it’s a constant relief. At times, my fears dictated a lot of what I did and did not do, and I often let them. There’s still plenty that scares me, but to a lesser degree. They’re rational and irrational fears including, but not limited to:
- Open water
- Crippling student debts
- The prospect of working in a supermarket for eternity
- Old people’s homes
- Beautiful women
- Attractive women
- Requiem For A Dream
- Voicemails from my mother
- Getting drunk abroad
- Losing heavily at FIFA to my housemate
- Memory loss
- Sharing my own internal monologues with the world.
- What kind of father I might be some day.
- Dancing without the aid of whiskey
You get the idea. So in this regard, 2016 has been a good year in terms of progress. I’m ending it stacking shelves in supermarkets, just like I ended 2015, but there’s plenty happened in between to make that fact more than bearable. I did a multitude of things I never figured I would have the balls to do, and for that I feel a great amount of pride. If 2016 was a swimming pool, I would’ve cracked out sixty lengths and then felt like swimming another sixty immediately after. I wouldn’t even need a bottle of lucozade in between. I’ll take that, happily. A few years ago it wasn’t just about swimming on, it was mainly about staying afloat adrift in the sea of life. Treading water started to feel like my speciality, to use more metaphors as signifiers for real life. Truth is, part of me will always be that thirteen year old kid, bouncing on that nightmare trampoline of adolescent fears, but that kid grows further removed from who I am now with each passing day. I’ll still sometimes see something solid rushing towards me and pull my knees towards my chest, bracing for impact instead of opening myself up to the possibilities. I’ll bail, and I’ll feel shame and resentment, but so is life. If I can ensure that this bailing happens less frequently, then that’s my idea of progress. So as 2016 draws to a close, I look forward to the future, as I’ve grown to love doing so. Everything is right there, and I have a constant incentive to crack out those final ten lengths and reach it.
I guess that I learnt something from that lesson other than how to be shit at trampolining.
So, keep on swimming / bouncing / whatever sports metaphor best suits your current situation. Here’s to 2017,