When I was 12 my family went snuba diving in Hawaii. It’s like scuba diving except you don’t need to be certified. Shallower water and your air tanks sit above you on a raft instead of on your back.
My mother has a profound fear of water, and with good reason. Her brother drowned in a well, she watched her classmate drown in a waterfall, and she doesn’t know how to swim. But she’s always been determined to overcome this. When we went snorkeling she had on a life vest, her snorkel mask, a boogie board, one hand on the lifeguard, and another hand on the boat.
Of course it was her ambitious idea to go diving. The mouthpiece used for diving is not comfortable. It’s a hunk of rubber that you bite down on, and it works best when you take deep, slow breaths. If you start taking shallower breaths, say, if you become scared, you run through your air more quickly and it never gets to your lungs. Not the best pastime for people afraid of water.
My brother and I were having a fantastic time and so completely unaware that my mother had a panic attack. The first thing she did was rip out her mouthpiece and swallow water. We had hand signs to signal our lifeguard in case of trouble and he would check in with us periodically and my brother and I would enthusiastically give him the “ok” sign. All of this information flew out of my mother’s head and she scrambled to the surface, flailed and gasped and sank back under the water until the lifeguard manning the raft noticed and pulled her in. It’s to her credit that she still wants to learn how to swim.
After we found out what happened, after my mother was safe and happy and again climbing back into the water for some other activity, my brother and I teased her for this incident. (Apparently I was not the kindest twelve year-old). I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Why would you remove the one device helping you breathe? And yet that’s exactly what I do with my spiritual and emotional practices. Stress me out enough and my first instinct is to rip them out.
I’m about five months pregnant and I know women who run marathons and juggle four children and quilt while pregnant (although not simultaneously). Sadly, I am not one of these women. I’m bedridden for about three months, make at least one trip to the hospital– not fun times. Since I joined the church I’d never skipped church on Sunday but with this pregnancy I stopped going for months. Being sick wasn’t an excuse; it was a valid reason. In Manhattan, attending church involved a forty minute train ride, carrying Zoe and her stroller up two flights of stairs by myself, and then spending three hours throwing up in the bathroom when I was meant to be in Sunday school. Not the most uplifting experience. Gradually and unwittingly I shed every spiritual practice of mine. Stopped praying at meals because I no longer ate meals, stopped praying with my husband because I was too tired to kneel, stopped interacting with people because I lacked the energy. I was lost in a Netflix-induced stupor of “The Walking Dead.” Great show, but not one I recommend for people actively seeking peace because it is the single most depressing show I’ve ever seen.
Like the mouthpiece of an air tank, the spiritual habits I shed are cumbersome for the wearied. And equally essential. Not all of them at once, but some must be maintained. But like my mother, I was acting on instinct. In that moment of stress, my mother believed it was the thick rubber that was the problem; it wasn’t allowing her to breathe properly. Cracking open your scriptures is a lot to ask of myself when I’m incapacitated, but I failed to recognize that the alternative was a mouthful of water.
Unlike many people, I feel no sense of guilt or shame at this spiritual slipping. There is no particular habit I “should” have clung to. I’m pretty confident that God loves me and isn’t taking role call on Sunday. When you’re sick, your capacity diminishes. But at some point, I let go of too much. I know this because the result was unhappiness.
It was the first time since joining the church that I felt overwhelmed. Four years ago I was an angry, avowed atheist with no hope in the world, (but a sizable chip on the shoulder to compensate), and two years ago I transitioned to devout Mormon. The presence of the Comforter (Holy Ghost) works miracles in my life. For two years my life has been virtually devoid of confusion. I have guidance and support enveloping me so consistently that I didn’t even notice it, like a perfect 70 degree weather so comfortable that you don’t even notice the weather. That feeling was the worst possible thing to lose. I felt like I wasn’t a Mormon or a Christian, like I was swamped, a quadriplegic caught in the middle of a triathlon going, “A) this is not going to happen, and B) what on earth am I doing on a bike?”
You don’t need to be religious to understand any of this and religion is not the point of this post. Happy people all have some system in place that is vital to maintaining that peace. When we go through difficult crap, that is the most important time for us to cling to those beliefs and practices more tightly.
I don’t go diving enough to know this, but I imagine that once it becomes enough of a habit, breathing through a mouthpiece becomes unnoticeable, like the tubes are an extension of you. You’re so focused on soaking in all of the beauty the apparatus allows you to see, the coral, the myriad of multicolored fish, sunlight filtering through water, that you are no longer aware of the work required to maintain that view. Breathing is easy.
When the habits that keep us functional become part of who we are, we focus on the intricacy of blessings brought into our lives rather than the daily iPhone reminder to read scripture. I’m not saying I could have been thrilled while being bedridden for three months, but I do believe I could have been more at peace. At the very least, I could have stopped swallowing saltwater. It’s also worth noting that whatever truth I did retain allowed me to at least contain my emotional explosion. During my last pregnancy I turned into the Wicked Witch of the West and was horrible to everyone close to me– most notably my husband.
This in-between time is what determines the course of the next trial. There will always be trials that I can’t quite manage; that is what inspires growth. But next time, I intend to bite down harder. My current decisions and habits will either enable or prevent that. I think someone said, “it is in times of duress that we must cleave to true principles.” I must be misquoting because I can’t find the quote anywhere, but you get the idea. Here, I’ll quote Lorde instead: “It feels better biting down.”