It seemed an insurmountable barrier. I can’t count the number of mornings when, as a boy, I would vow to myself that this would be the day that the barrier came down. I would pass the test. I would enter the ranks of the conquerors over whom the barrier held no power, no authority. No more would I heed the unspoken threat which said, “Danger! This far! No further!” But day after day, I failed to live up to my own expectation. Again and again, I attempted the trial, only to be rejected. Ah! But, the day on which I triumphed? What a time of jubilation! I will never forget it!
Boy! That must have been some monster obstacle, huh? Probably something like one of those huge wooden walls with the rope hanging down that you had to climb up and fling yourself over the top? You’ll be disappointed when you realize that this unyielding obstruction, which foiled me on so many attempts to get past it, was nothing more than a simple nylon rope. Standing on the side of the swimming pool at the boys’ camp, you would laugh as you viewed the insignificant, puny thing. A nylon rope with miniature buoys attached to make it float on top of the water, and which divided the shallow end of the pool from the deep end. Who couldn’t get past that thing easily? Well, I suppose I could have gone under it anytime I wished. Possibly, I could have jumped over it. But, the camp director had clearly set out the rules at the beginning of the week and his minions (the teenaged junior counselors) had enforced them doggedly. Until each camper had demonstrated his ability to swim the length of the pool twice without stopping and within the designated time period, his freedom in the pool would be limited to the shallow side of the rope. Several valiant attempts on my part to pass the test were failures, and still the dreaded rope blocked any hope of ever reaching the other end of the pool.
What was so important about breaching that line across the water? To this young boy, the most important single destination in the swimming pool was the diving board, and it sat smack dab at the other edge of the deepest part of the pool. To use the diving board, one must first prove that he could safely propel himself through the water without sinking to the bottom of the pool. Everyday, as I paddled around in the shallow end of the water, I thought of nothing else than being on the other side of that rope. Even the rope itself drew us, like flies to carrion. We congregated near it, sat on it, even balanced as we stood on it, but we could not violate the space beyond it without first passing the dreaded test.
The day I passed that test, I was ecstatic. I had beaten the challenge, and conquered the pool; I was victorious! That afternoon, as we went to free swim, I thought of nothing else than being in the deep water. I would never bother with the shallow end of the pool again. Deep water for me from now on! After waiting an interminable amount of time for my turn on the diving board. I dove into the water; slicing down deep, almost to the drain at the bottom. Then I shoved back up to the top of the water, to hear someone yelling at me from the diving board. “Get out of the way!” I hurried to the side of the pool and hastened to do it again. As I repeated the process a few times though, I became aware that I was spending very little time in the pool, and most of my precious free swim minutes waiting to dive. Realization hit me slowly. This wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I enjoyed diving for a little while, but I wanted to swim. I tried swimming along the side of the pool in the deep end, but soon found that there was no place to rest here. Latching onto the ladder as I swam past, I hung there and caught my breath. Suddenly, I realized something else.
Most of the people in the shallow end of the pool could swim. They had passed the test long ago. The rope was no barrier to them, but they understood something I hadn’t. Having a firm footing under you, and the ability to put your feet down and rest from your labors, is nothing to sneer at. Just because you can swim in the deep end, doesn’t mean that you must. As with most things in life, balance is as important as excitement.
I learned an important lesson that day. I’m still learning it. I have observed, over and over, as friends and family members have struggled to achieve some goal, only to see them crash and burn when they achieve it. A diploma must be acquired and the focus is completely on achieving that quest. A couple seems unable to have children and they try desperately to become pregnant, going from doctor to doctor and clinic to clinic to make it happen. A better job, a bigger house, a long awaited trip…all are in sight, but just beyond the grasp, so we struggle to reach the goal. Each time the goal, which has been the focus of the individual for a period of time, is reached, I have seen disappointment and depression take over, as the person comes to grip with the realization that the thing which they coveted and strove for is not at all what they had expected. “Is this all there is?” one person asked me, just before he folded emotionally. The question resounds in my mind still.
I have struggled with this idea, that achieving goals leads to disappointment, but it is true only because we humans are strange creatures. We believe that if we could just achieve that certain status, could just complete that one special project, could just finish this last lifelong goal, we’ll be content. It will be the icing on the cake and we can sit and admire what we have done. Alas, it never works that way. A wise woman once said to me, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Oh, many people had said it before her and many have said it since, but my Mom had a way with cliches’ which brought the words to life. The first time I heard it, I’m sure I was confused by the imagery, but I soon came to understand the concept.
The longer I live, the more I realize that we make the cake and then we eat what we have made. But after our feast we remember that the reality of life is this: As long as we are drawing breath, we will need more to eat, so each goal is followed by another one. I don’t believe that our Creator ever intended that we should be able to sit and say, “I am done. I have reached the apex and will try no longer.” He put inside each of us the desire to go further and do more.
I remember the first time I realized that even the heroes in the Bible stories which we heard in Sunday School had this problem. I was shocked as I considered Elijah’s amazing triumph over the prophets of the false god. Against all hope, he bested them in the contest to bring down fire from the heavens, and they were wiped from the face of the earth. What did the conquering hero do? He went and hid in a cave and whimpered. I am encouraged to realize that we share a common trait with this great man. It means that there is hope for us yet.
Set your goals. Set them high. But remember, as you strive and work to achieve them, that there will be life after they are accomplished. Plan for more; anticipate even loftier heights. I love the thought expressed in one of Robert Browning’s poems, when he says, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp; or what’s a heaven for?” We reach further and higher, stretching ourselves as we do, growing to the stature that our Creator intended.
As we reach, we rejoice in what has been accomplished; it is admirable, and yet, still incomplete.
Keep reaching, my friend. Where there’s life, there’s work to be done.
And, there is joy in the journey.
“…and forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things which are before me, I press toward the mark, for the prize…”
(Philippians 3:13b, 14a~KJV)
“There is a joy in the journey
There’s a light we can love on the way
There is a wonder and wildness to life
And freedom for those who obey.”
(Joy In The Journey by Michael Card~American songwriter/singer)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.