The Swimmer’s Moment

whirlpool turquoise

 Tolkien wrote about his character, Frodo, that “often he wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight. Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done.” 

 Notice that the sensible folk are amazed. They don’t get it. They don't know what to make of Frodo’s wanderlust - his hunger for adventure, his longing to commune with the elves - his yearning for other worlds, for transcendence. 

 'Why does he not stay with us?', the spiritless keep asking: 'Why can’t he just be content with things as they are? Why doesn’t he stay home and chill out a little? He’s much too intense! Far too full of passion!'  

 But for someone like Frodo, to live such a guarded life would be the death of life and a violation of his nature.

 For Frodo to be true to himself, true to his nature, he could not do otherwise than to roam the hills and woods and to meet with the elves. 

 He was in the grip of a call, and of irresistible longings. A great hunger motivated him: "He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.” 

 "He began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders.” (referenced by Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien - The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings, p. 109)

 Frodo knew that the life he wanted lay in some mysterious territory - “the white spaces” - beyond the edges

 He felt called to see more and to become more. That being the case, Frodo would surely have understood something that philosopher, Peter Kreeft, has written, which is that our nature or identity is “something to be achieved.” 

 Which is to say, in other words that ours is not a self or identity, that is already given and already formed - something to be passively accepted. No. It is rather a possibility to be attained through great care and commitment.

 It is apparent that Frodo felt a surging hunger for a greater self, for another way, a deeper way, for a road less travelled. 

 It has always been thus in every generation. There is a call to a higher identity, a higher self - a call into other domains, other realms, other possibilities. But then, of course, there’s the refusal of the call.

 In all of life - even today, as you read or hear this article - you and I are standing at a crossroads. Which way will we go? 

 Frodo’s way was to engage his hunger for the transcendent realms of high adventure.

 In so doing, he would thus create a story, a story with all of its attendant risks and missteps, but a story nonetheless about a search for more than is ordinarily experienced.

 Thus Frodo was putting into practice the idea that it is better to try and fail than to sit there scratching yourself.

 The other way, the lesser way, is not to search and to become therefore over time, less than your self, less than your nature, less than what you might have become. 

 The failure to search sets in motion a regression into a diminished nature, a self that degenerates finally into something grey and unrecognizable. 

 Here is the difference then between two possibilities, that of a man in full, or an unman. Here is the contrast between the individuated hobbit, Frodo, and the unidentifiable, Gollum, a failed hobbit.

 Now, inevitably in the quest for high adventure, there will be a swimmer’s moment, as Canadian writer, Margaret Avison, describes in a poem that at its deepest level has to do a confrontation with one’s nature. 

 There before you, as she describes, is a whirlpool, symbolic of some great possibility.

 You’re standing there on the edge of the whirlpool. It’s the swimmer’s moment. Will you dive in, or stay put? Will you fulfill your destiny, or deny it?

 The poet warns that to refuse the call will forge a face that over time will become increasingly bland, blank and pale.

 In Margaret’s words: "Bland-blank faces turn pale forever on the rim of suction.” 

 I taught Aerobics for several years and in my classes there were often very unfit people who would lurk around at the back of the class. Few, sad to say, ever remained long enough to get fit.

 I’ve sometimes thought of them when I’ve walked through various Wal Marts. Walmart seems to draw aerobics drop-outs like a magnet. There they can be seen, going up and down the aisles, lugging their poor bodies along - any spring in their steps, long lost.

 I was on the Grade nine basketball team in Junior High School when I heard that at the Senior High School the players were required to run up and down the stairs in the gym until they dropped. 

 This inspired me!

 The coach, I learned, was very intense and demanding. In response, some great longing stirred inside. I longed to run those stairs! And did, as it turned out later - many, many times. 

 I’ve often thought of that fourteen year old desire for a huge challenge. It felt critical to me. It was some kind of rite of passage into manhood.

 There was such a deep desire to go to an edge of some kind and then to leap!

 But over the years since, I’ve met not a few people who somehow cannot relate to that. These are perhaps Tolkien’s sensible people, full of cautions about high adventures.

 They say, for example, that they don’t like competition, and pathetically say that 'all should have prizes.’ Their complaint is that things aren’t fair. They seem to want to level and equalize everything. 

 I find it hard to be polite in response. Perhaps it’s the case that at some time in their lives these sensible and cautious folk stood on the rim of a whirlpool, refused to jump and haven’t moved since.

 I don’t know. I don’t understand this mentality. For as Thoreau put it, and I think it’s a rule of thumb: "We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success.” 

 At some point you jump and become something, or by remaining on the edge, you begin to fade away. 

 You become by that leap some kind of soul on fire! By failing to leap, you take the path towards becoming colourless and featureless, like the sick souls that Seattle Talk Show host, Michael Medved, was told about when he was a pre-teen.

 His Uncle Moish approached him to say: "Now is the time, Mike, for the talk we need to have. Maybe your parents think you're too young, or they don't want you to hear. But I think you're ready. I think you need it. I think you are going to remember." 

 Moish then warned the young Michael about a certain sickness of soul and mind that humans beings can fall into.

 Moish had seen this pathology develop, take hold and enslave millions in the form of the communism that spread across Russia.

 Moish warned about a sickness of soul that "ruins more lives, than any other disease.

"When you go to high school, Michael, when you go to college, this sickness will be all around you. You'll see some of your best friends get sick."

 "Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you know about this disease?" I saw it starting in Russia before we got out in 1924." 

 "But it's not only Russia, you know. It's everywhere. Especially with intellectualsIf you're not ready for it, you may get infected - so you have to understand. They're going to go after millions and millions of other people in your generation." (Michael Medved, Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life, p. 57 ff.) 

 Michael never forgot the warning and states: "Less than six years later, "I was surrounded in college by honest-to-goodness leftist lunatics, and in trying to deal with the psychos from the Students for a Democratic Society, I thought repeatedly of my uncle's warnings.”

 Here was a mob, like so many, where there is a hatred of authority, morality and religion, whose only desire is to tear down, smash and burn.

 Among this crowd there is no understanding that our human nature is  something elusive, volatile and frail and therefore requiring exceedly good care!

 "Our very being is trembling,” says Peter Kreeft. It stands trembling before the whirlpool. The quality and direction of my life depends upon whether I make the plunge or not.  

 Any stand I take, or protest I make, must emerge out of an attained fullness of being and not otherwise. 

 And thus it is the case therefore that, regardless of my circumstances - however dire, I am responsible for my life. I am responsible for what I become.

 As Victor Frankl points out in his writings. In the very same circumstances, (Nazi concentration camps) some people became saints and some became devils.

 Frankl emphasized that in whatever conditions we find ourselves, we always have the power to choose. This power is our dignity. It is what makes us human.

 He therefore declared: "Between stimulus and response there is a spaceIn that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response, lies our growth and our freedom.”  

 We are therefore most alive when we live in that space between stimulus and response. 

 We need to open ourselves to this space within. And when we do, we will find that it is a place of deep longing, of a great hunger for truth, beauty and goodness. 

 As C.S. Lewis wrote about his central character, Orual, in his novel, Till We Faces: "I was happiest when I longed the most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine. And because it was so beautiful, I seemed to be longing, always longing.” 

 About this captivating longing she then says: "Somewhere else there must be more of it.

 More of what? More of a certain longing for the Highest, for God, a longing that is to be distinguished from all others. 

 It is this longing, that took Frodo to the hills and woods under starlight and which compells us to leap into the whirlpool. 

 It is a hunger, as C.S. Lewis has described, that is better than any other fullness. 

 A hunger better than any other fullness. The swimmer’s moment is to feel that hunger so strongly that you leap into the whirlpool, engage the rapids and emerge on the other side into ample waters, as the poet describes.

 You have come to a point in your life when you cannot do otherwise. To remain on the edge would be a betrayal of all you ever dreamed of.

 You will never regret that you plunged into those waters. You were meant to. That leap is the best thing you’ve ever done.


Out in the Cold, TyDi