This is worth reading:
Diana Nyad and the wisdom of age
Guest Columnist (Vincent P. Ward)
Published: Sep 12, 2013, in The State
The thing that impressed most people about Diana Nyad wasn’t her triumphant emergence from Gulf waters after 53 hours to become the first person ever to swim from Cuba to Florida’s Key West without a shark cage. It’s that she was 64 years old.
The sheer strength, tolerance of pain and discomfort and endurance it took are astonishing. But as Nyad indicated afterward, there’s more to be found by looking deeper. The three things to take from her journey, she said, are “never give up; you’re never too old; and it looks like a solitary achievement but it’s a team effort.”
This was more than breaking a sports record. It was a demonstration of what can be accomplished with the products of aging itself. In a PBS interview the next day, she said that as she ages, “the clock seems to be ticking faster” and “time seems to be running out.” She wanted this to be “a lesson to my life that says, ‘Be fully engaged; be so fully awake and alert and alive.’”
So wisdom was a major factor. She later spoke of the line between acknowledging the possibility of being defeated by things that are bigger than we are, and quitting before we actually reach our limits. It takes wisdom to see, and to live into, that paradox.
Courage is another factor. Nyad braved the water temperature, waves, currents and weather. She braved sharks, swimming without the contraption that keeps them away and marginally eases the water’s resistance around the swimmer. She braved the jellyfish, which had taken her out of action before. She braved the depths, in which unknown critters swim, some of which could rise up to make you dinner.
In other words, she entered the ocean more on its terms and less on hers. This requires another frequent feature of aging: humility, the recognition that in the great scheme of things, you’re not nearly as important as your ego thinks you are. Related is a willingness to surrender to the task, to go with the flow of the sea, rather than determining to conquer it.
Patience is a factor, too. It took four decades of it to hold onto her “extreme dream.” Biding her time while her body aged must have been hard, and probably seemed unwise to many.
Exhaustion, muscle and joint pain, sunburn, swallowed sea water that had to be vomited up, self-doubt, fear, two days without sleep and more. Why would anybody deliberately embrace such suffering? I suspect for the same reason Christ did: for the sake of meaning greater and far more important than safety and comfort.
This swim was in Nyad’s mind for 40 years. She got in the water to start on four occasions, but never finished. But being unable to finish was not the same as giving up. Aging, if you’re paying attention, entails internal change, an emergence, a response to insistent pressure from the inside to become more authentic. So I suspect the meaning of the swim changed over the years and decades, becoming a journey, a process, that occupied a much larger, more central and more profound place in her than just breaking a record. I think it came to represent a destiny of the spirit.
But the time for fulfilling it was not to come until she was spiritually equipped, with the wisdom, courage, humility, interior strength, love that drew supporters to her, and acceptance of the role of suffering in life, which only years can bring. Her journey began decades ago, but I think she had to be 64 to integrate all that and finish this stage of it. “Stage” because the journey is life, and it’s not over till it’s over.
Those of us who are “of an age” had better be paying attention. It wasn’t the goal of swimming from Cuba to Florida that Diana Nyad never gave up on — it was herself. We should be inspired by her to the same journey. Our approaching death is no excuse for giving up on life.
Dr. Ward is a Columbia psychotherapist; reach him at email@example.com.