In Depth: Swimming to Learn

| July 13, 2010

A sixteen-year-old-boy, for example, […] tells me in a session about the moment, at age ten, when he eventually learned to swim after having been terrified of water: “I knew I was safer out of my depth because even though I couldn’t stand, there was more water to hold me up.”

—Adam Phillips in “On Risk and Solitude”

Pilots understand this. It is not height that is to be feared, but proximity. Contact. At best touching down is a masterfully delayed stall. That moment when you are no longer of the sky, but must now wallow, reaching down to touch something out of one’s element. The wings slipping as the wheels touch, as if it were the earth that would deflate the sky of its support.

It is aloft, in the depths of the sky, that one is safe.

For years I used to have the same dream: flying low over a road strung across regularly with electric wires, hoping for enough lift to make it up through the next gap, the next one, the next one…

Get aloft… Find depth…

I remember being gently chided, one day, by my high-school teacher for answering that it was in order to escape that I flew. Surely there was more to it. “Something positive,” I gathered he meant. I did not know what to say. Certainly it was not to arrive: the plotting of destinations. Nor, despite the glamour and challenge, was it about acquiring skillfulness. The skill, on the contrary, was in some way I barely understood, the shimmering mirage hiding a need for buoyancy, for endless sand. In the sky I was out of my depth. Which is to say, finally in depth.

Do you master that?

Maybe the reason I could not find more words for my high-school teacher was that I could not fathom that it was in the loneliness of the sky that I learned to relate. To feel the dense responsiveness of air. One couldn’t get any traction on the abstract, limp air in the high-school physics room. How can you explain that?

How do you explain that you suspect that learning might be a mere side-effect of buoyancy?