The ocean evokes in mankind both love and fear. In equal parts. And for many the fear inhibits the act of love.
This love and fear goes back millennia. If you look at a list of ancient Greek goddesses and gods of the sea there are plenty, ranging from the primordial gods Oceanus and Tethysare, the father and mother of Homer’s gods, to Poseidon and a whole lot of nymphs and monsters. All cultures have ocean deities. Life came from the oceans, and the oceans cover 70% of our blue Earth. We all love the seas and the beaches and feel replenished after time spent on or near the water. Yet how many of us would dare jump off a boat miles off shore? Who would swim out to sea in the middle of the night? Who besides watermen, divers and surfers would jump into big waves and dive into deep water, to inhabit for maybe a minute the world of the undersea?
My birthday is on a famous day in Brazil, the day of Lemanjá, the Afro-Brazilian mother goddess of the sea. On the second day of February she is said to rise out of the waters. She is worshipped by all and especially those who venture out to sea: fishermen and sailors. I have always loved being in the water and my mother tells me stories of me jumping into the waves as a baby. My grandfather lived on the sea in a small New England fishing town and all year he would jump into the cold sea and frolic like a big brown seal. Often I would be be right beside him, the two of us floating on our backs and laughing at the ridiculously icy water.
But despite my affinity for water and my rather reckless nature of jumping into every body of water I come cross I too have always felt that pull of fear, or rather that vice like grip of the ocean depths that seems in our minds to want to pull us down and down. Like there is something in the deep that wants to envelop us in a world where we cannot possibly survive, an inkiness with no air and a silence broken only by the bubbles leaking out of us and slowly depriving us of life.
I felt this most strongly in the clear blue water that I love the most, the south pacific ocean surrounding the volcanic island of Moorea. Every day for close to a year I swam out from my little bungalow on the lagoon, into warm shallow waters populated by friendly sea turtles, my local reef sharks (seriously harmless fish who poke around all day looking for who knows what) and hundreds of small colorful creatures flickering in the sun dappled waters. Next to my lagoon was one of the Moorea’s two bays, Oponohu, a big gash connecting the green volcanic cliffs to the incredibly deep waters of the ocean just several hundred meters beyond. The gash runs deep and sometimes I swam across Opunohu towards the pass to venture out to sea. The edge of lagoon and bay and ocean is a careening precipice curving downwards to the ocean floor some thousands of meters below. That edge so visible in the gin-clear waters makes swimming out feel like you are willingly launching yourself off the edge of the Grand Canyon. Once out past the reef, with my world’s bottom no longer visible, where the huge and gentle swell makes me feel less like a falling object and more like a space voyager I would regain my calm breathing. It is not the simply the depth that made me shut my eyes to thwart the terror but that pull of the deep so much more powerful than than anything I have ever felt.
In most places I swim the water is not so clear and the ocean floor not so precipitous so that feeling rarely rises up. This is just one aspect of our fear of the ocean. There are others. Yet our love is just as powerful. It’s pull just as thrilling. Most people want to go to the beach, to the seaside on their time off. The sound of waves is soothing. The ocean air is bracing. Only on the beach is it acceptable everywhere to be scantily clad, to expose most of our skin, to be vulnerable. And as much as I love all bodies of water the ocean with its salty water feels the best. You float better, it leaves your skin smooth. And it is the oceans that are home to dolphins and whales, those almost human creatures with large brains, and funny smirks and complex languages that always seem to welcome us to their world. If only we could go there.
Many if not most of us balance this love and fear by simply dipping our toes into the water, literally. We frolic in shallow water, we boat on top off the water, and we sometimes windsurf and jet ski and wake board our way across the surface of the ocean. This is equivalent to a bird jumping up and down. Its fun and if all your friends are doing it its even more fun. But it is not an experience of the sky.
It is not our lot to be able to fly into the sky, but we have innate abilities to swim and dive. To do so we must gain confidence, swallow our trepidation and allow ourselves to float and swim happily. It is a practice, like yoga, like playing the violin. Confidence is not innate, something you have or not have. It is not reserved solely for experts and for heroes. Lack of confidence is also not innate, reserved solely for you and me. It is something that you learn and acquire and practice.
I practice by swimming as much as I can, almost every day. Sometimes straight out to sea, towards the other side of the ocean and then I stop and listen and see in a way that you see stars at night lying down in nature. You see vastness and that vastness makes you fly. It is a great feeling. The only aching sadness is the realization that while the ocean welcomes us we will never truly inhabit it.