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Treading Water


Have you ever tried to tread water? I learned how during Senior Life Saving class in high school. I remember how difficult it was to remain upright as I sculled with my hands and frog-kicked my legs. The odd thing about it was the fact that, though I was moving, I wasn’t going anywhere.

Doesn’t it seem like we’re treading water right now? It’s like our boat’s been capsized, and we’re bobbing in a raucous sea of unpredictability, impermanence, and upheaval. The waves come, one after another, and there’s no land in sight. No certain rescue on its way.

We’re treading water in the sense that it’s difficult to plan for life. We don’t know if we can take a vacation or go to our family reunion or see our grandma in her nursing home. We don’t know what variation of school our kids will be offered and how we will need to be involved. For David and me, we don’t know if we’ll be able to offer our spiritual direction training in person or host retreatants. It’s hard to not be able to plan!

Because we can’t plan, it’s also hard to look forward. The land is too far off. Returning to “normal” is not going to happen for some time. Treading water is hard when the “normal” we look forward to seems so uncertain and such a long way off. Not being able to look forward to experiences that bring us joy is depressing and draining.

It’s also hard right now to make progress, at least the kind of progress we’re used to making. So much of life seems to be at a stand-still. Or, when we try to make progress it takes longer and way more energy than normal. Most of us aren’t used to marking time, staying home, having our wings clipped, needing to be content with what is, rather than what could be.

Everything about this experience plays to my weaknesses. I falter in liminal spaces, unable to bring closure to my plans and desires—to my creative energies. My strength is to organize life, get things done, and be helpful to others. Not being able to do that in the ways I’m used to feels stifling to my most native way of being in the world.

This is hard, friends! It’s hard for all of us. It’s not just your imagination or mine.

As I return to my analogy of treading water, I think about what I learned of this life-saving skill. It’s not something I can do forever, but it’s something I can do for a time. What it does is help me keep my head above water and enables me to see others who might be drowning and need support.

So, I’ve been paying attention to the ways God is meeting me in this “treading water” moment in history, and here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • Treading water helps me re-center during this destabilizing time. Like a vertical plumb line set upon the horizon of a tilted and undulating sea, I am forced to find my bearings, to re-center myself on the North Star, and align my life with who God created me to be and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I’ve been asking myself questions like, “Who am I and what am I to be about?” “What is mine to do, and what isn’t?” “What am I for and what am I against?”

  • Treading water teaches me patience as I wait for the storms to pass. One of the temptations when capsized on the open sea is to expend energy trying to get somewhere you can never reach. The land is too far off. The flotsam isn’t a reliable buoy. Friends, we won’t be here forever. We will be rescued; I am confident of that. But we need to be patient and sincerely trust in God’s abiding presence, an ever-present help in this time of trouble.

  • Treading water invites me to develop my “mindfulness muscle.” While I can’t do much planning, looking forward, or making progress right now, I can be mindful of what is. Practicing presence is a wonderfully life-giving aptitude that opens me to see the beauty in the small features of life that often go unnoticed.

  • Treading water develops strength and other-centered resolve. It’s a skill not only to save myself, but to save others who might be at risk of drowning. Treading water enables me to look around and see those who are struggling and need support. To see who I can reach out to—just to say, “You’re not alone.” “I see you.” Treading water helps me make the respectful choice to social- distance and wear a mask—not just to protect myself, but to protect others who are more vulnerable than me!

The very stuff God uses to teach us how to love like Jesus comes from the curriculum of our own lives. So, here we are, treading water. Marking time. At a stand-still. And sure enough, in this place we discover daily opportunities to allow God’s loving character- formation and capacity-building to come from it. So—hang in there! You’re not alone. Keep sculling!

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