Swimming through jellyfish

24 Jan

This is an absolutely fantastic TED talk by Diana Nyad. Approaching the age of 60, she felt profound regret at the regrets that had dominated her life. Not wanting to live the rest of her life in submission to her fears, she decided she was going to be the first person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. No small feat!

Despite all her training, mental focus, physical fitness and determination – she came up against a formidable opponent, only two hours into her swim. The box jellyfish. One of the most venomous creatures on the planet. Diana was stung multiple times, yet kept swimming as treatment was administered. She could hardly breathe and was in agonising pain. Yet she kept swimming. The following day, she was stung again. She kept swimming. But on day three, her body gave up. She had managed to swim for another 38 hours following the initial attack (an extraordinary feat in itself), but now her body was giving up. She had no choice but to abandon her swim. Abandon her dream. As she says, “the dream was crushed”.

One of the reasons I love this talk is that Diana’s “failure” took place only one month before she stood on this prestigious stage, talking about her defeat at the tentacles of the box jellyfish. She was not standing there in victory, having subsequently conquered this swim, having conquered (or avoided!) the jellyfish. Instead she stands in front of her (potentially global) audience in humility, in defeat, in grace. She has no easy answers. There are no easy answers. No quick retorts to life’s deepest disappointments.

Following the crushing of a dream, there may never be a later “success”, a moment where disappointment fades away in the face of subsequent joy. Hope may never be resurrected. The dream may never become reality. This is the painful, often humiliating reality. Well-meant platitudes – “maybe it was never meant to be”, “something better will come along”, “one day it will all make sense” – are often just annoying, sometimes jarringly insensitive. You see, there are no guarantees in life. No certainties that one day life will bring victory, rather than defeat.

How do we respond to the death of a dream? The sense of failure? The loss of meaning? Well, one day, we might come out fighting. As Diana said, “the ocean is still there”. But maybe we won’t. Maybe we will never truly know “why?”, maybe we will always feel a little bit disappointed. And that’s ok. Is is possible to “find grace in the face of defeat”? To embrace grace rather than bitterness (although it’s ok, and probably healthy, to be angry for a while); grace rather than fear (although we all get afraid sometimes); grace rather than a need to succeed. Grace may mean trying again, or it may mean letting go. It will probably mean embracing failure. It will probably mean allowing the dream to die, whether for a while or forever. It will probably mean finding enough grace to continue pursuing grace, whatever may happen next.

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