I had a powerful and terrifying dream three nights ago.
I was swimming at a beach on the Big Island of Hawaii (where we’re traveling for vacation soon). Elaine was there with me, and we were exploring, looking for good snorkeling, and just experiencing the ocean. In search of the perfect spot, I encouraged her to swim a little further out with me, confident that we’d find something fantastic. Instead, as we swam, the currents strengthened, the swells expanded, and soon I realized we were out of our depth. Panic set in, and as I drifted up and down with 10-foot swells, I realized we were lost. We were at the mercy of the currents, and would be swept out to sea, and there was nothing I could do to save either her or myself. I had failed, through my own stupidity and arrogance.
When I woke from the dream, I chalked it up to some free-floating anxiety about the upcoming trip. I always get nervous before trips, and in this case, I think my anxiety was slightly heightened because I know Elaine isn’t that comfortable with the ocean, and I want to take care of her. If I’m going to be totally honest, it’s probably also because I don’t deal with ambiguity and the unknown very well. Travel to new and foreign places pushes those buttons pretty squarely, and when I also take on the responsibility of planning and making a great experience for Elaine, my provider-of-stability buttons get mashed. So, to manage my anxiety, I do everything I can to prepare, to create a foundation where I can maximize control and manage the unknowns.
But the ocean is something for which you can only prepare so much.
If you don’t pay attention, and respect the power of the currents, waves and tides, you can find yourself in a bad situation pretty quickly. This is true for water in general, and in searching through my memories, I’ve uncovered some pretty healthy fears lurking in my psyche driven by childhood experiences with water and the ocean. I was terrified of my first swimming lessons, nearly drowned when I was 7, and had a number of ocean-swallowing, bone-crunching wipeouts when I was learning to bodysurf and Boogie board. My respect for the ocean is colored by these memories, and I rarely enter it in circumstances where I’m not sure of what I’m doing.
And so I tried to let go of the dream, but it resurfaced. After swimming around in my head for a few days, I realized something else might be at work: my recent job loss and current state of transition. My professional life and identity are in flux, and though I’m trying to take a Zen approach, not pushing too hard to resolve ambiguity or define my next path, I have some underlying fear and anxiety.
The ocean and its currents perfectly symbolize these fears. The ocean stands for the forces in our lives we can’t control, the market machinations or random twists of fate that can lead to financial ruin, personal meltdowns, or worse. My state of transition, where I’ve let go of perfect clarity, is akin to drifting with the tide of life. But that beautiful feeling of drifting with the tide can rapidly shift into the panic of being adrift, of being lost and out of control.
Now that I’ve recognized the duality of my feelings (desire to drift, fear of being adrift), I can try to accept my fear and live with it as I find my way. It won’t go away, and I shouldn’t ignore it, but by recognizing it, I turn it from an unseen monster into a troublesome imp. My inner strength, and the amazing people in my life, are what will keep my weightless, aimless drift an open-minded exploration of the opportunities life brings my way, filled with curiosity and wonder, rather than a panicked and desperate search for perfect answers.