“You have to face the break before floating in the swell.”
Everything is a metaphor. Absolutely everything. At least in my world it is.
Deriving metaphors from literal situations helps me to contextualize the place I’m in and think of things in a new light. Anyone who says figurative language (or language in general) isn’t a powerful and transformative thing has clearly never experienced the true power of words. I pity them dearly.
This past week, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with my beautiful family on vacation on the east coast. Regardless of what coast it is, things like beaches and bodies of water in general make me think. This applies to other things that are much larger than I am, including but not limited to bridges, mountains, canyons, waterfalls, greenery, or even particularly vast fields. I thank God for nature, because not only am I nourished by nature in the physical sense via food, air, and water, but also in the emotional sense… For myself, I find that God uses nature to quite literally bring me back down to Earth. Nature, particularly large bodies of water like oceans, make me feel miniscule in the absolute best way. The beautiful Earth around me has taught me numerous metaphoric lessons about the trials and tribulations of life, as well as the joy and the beauty of it.
This “break and swell” metaphor was brought to mind one day as I was getting in and out of the ocean. When curating metaphors, I notice the literal sense before arriving at the spiritual.
As I was getting into the surf, I noticed the crunchy, somewhat painful layer of fragmented shells decorating the shoreline as I entered the water – my feet did not like them. They would have been more painful were my feet not callused from years of dancing, lifting weights, and simply walking through life (barefoot as often as possible, many times on the beach… I truly have a coastal soul). I made it through the layer of shells unscathed and only mildly discomforted.
Then comes the break. Every time I have visited the east coast (I believe this was the 19th time, not counting the one where I was in the womb… I don’t remember much about that one), I notice the difficulty of getting into the surf. The waves have a certain “sweet spot” of sorts where the majority of the waves like to break. While this is one of my favorite sights to observe and marvel at, it’s not my favorite to walk through. But, my goal is to get to the calmer part of the water past the breaking waves where I can float peacefully in the swell, look at the sky, and derive other cheesy metaphors to write about, so I fight through. When I see a wave approaching me, reaching its crest and approaching it’s break, I have to gauge it in but a moment’s time. Is this a wave small enough for me to walk through? If yes, I brace my core and keep moving. Is this wave of a magnitude that I should instead stop and face it instead of trying to push past? If yes, pause. I plant my feet as firmly as I can in the sand that’s rushing away with the tide beneath me. Keep your leg muscles strong. Take a deep breath and brace your core for stability. If necessary, turn around and let your back take the brunt of it. Let it hit you, then keep moving forward, I tell myself. There’s also another route I’ve taken to brace said breaks, but it requires me standing through a couple first to build confidence assure myself that it’s okay. This route is simply staring at the wave for that brief moment, and then deciding to dive headfirst through the wave. This option is a bit riskier as it’s difficult to evaluate the extent to which I’ll be thrown around underneath the surface. But, since I have grown confident in my ability to statically brace myself against the current, I simply go for the scarier one.
It’s also important to note that I had a fear of doing this, or of even going more than thigh-deep in the ocean, for a few years due to an instance when I was younger… I had my back to the sea and my face towards the land, floating peacefully in an inner-tube, when a wave came up behind me, flipped me, and took me under. This was a particularly strong wave, and as I’m typing this, I remember the intense fear I felt when I still wasn’t coming back up. There was saltwater in my lungs and in my eyes since I wasn’t braced properly to go underwater. When what I’m sure now was only a few seconds underneath the surface had passed, I felt the air on my face. I tried opening my eyes and could barely see. Breathing was even harder, and I was coughing up saltwater uncontrollably trying to clear out my lungs. I managed to grab the inner tube as I staggered my way back to my mom, who was seated on the shore. She chuckled and made a joke about me getting tossed around, but regardless, she saw that little Em was shaken and scared, so she consoled me. This made me afraid of even attempting to approach the swell for about 2-3 years following. I would wade to a comfortable place in the water, but no further.
Anyway. After walking, standing and facing, or diving through a myriad of breaking waves, I finally reach the swell. This is the fun part. This is the part that feels easy – the water allows me to gently float, whether that be on my back or by lightly treading water. This place is one of my favorite places in the world to be. When I look in front of me, I see the vastness of the ocean laid out in front of me, but I feel differently than when I’m on the shore because I’m in it now. I am quite literally immersed in the vastness. When I turn around and look back towards the shore, I see where I just came from. I see sand. I see other people trying to do the same thing that I just did in order to reach the swell. Some are trying to catch the waves and coast onto the shore with boogie boards. Sometimes, unless they have all decided to join me in the water, I see my family waiting back at our little post of towels and beach chairs and sunscreen, and I wave. It’s here in the swell that I’m able to be away from worldly things, like cell phones and computers and money and the various (metaphoric) breaks I’m facing in my life. I get perspective here. I feel peace here. And although I know exactly where I am, I feel somewhat lost in the best way. This is also the place where, if they decided to join me, I get to have some of the most candid conversations and interactions with people like my family or friends, or random strangers who have also reached the swell and strike up a conversation. In the literal sense, my body feels almost weightless, and above all, I’m happy here. Sometimes an unexpected wave comes up out of nowhere, but it’s okay. They aren’t as frequent as the ones before.
Then comes the moment when I decide it’s time to go back to shore to get food and water, to keep from shriveling up like a prune, or to simply return back to land to do something different. This part isn’t all fun and games either. Actually, I think the “going back” part might be more trying than the initial “getting in” one. When returning from the swell, the waves are to my back. Once I reach the point where the breaks are becoming more frequent and persistent, it’s imperative to exercise caution – remember my childhood experience? Yeah, I’m trying to avoid that. I’m mindful of what’s going on behind me so as not to be caught unprepared by a large wave that I’m not ready for. However, I can’t be completely focused on what’s going on back there, because that’s not where I’m going. Eye on the prize here, friends. Another particularly interesting struggle when walking back towards the shore is the fact that not only am I facing waves coming from behind, but I also face being pushed backwards by the waves that are going back out to sea. This creates a lot of resistance. Depending on the strength of the tide that day, I’d better hope I have some strong legs beneath me… Without them, that alone would pull me back out to sea and I’ll never reach my newdestination. Water is strong. I must be stronger.
Get through the crunchy shell layer one more time, and there you have it. I made it back to land! I walked over the fragments, faced the break, made it to the swell, floated peacefully and hopefully did or thought of something of significance while I was there, had the strength to wade through yet another water-war, pass the shells once more, and return to my comfy towel to dry off in the sun. I see the Big Blue out in front of me once more, knowing I faced it and can be a part of it again, calmly floating along, if I choose. For now, I need a break. I need the comfort of the land, where my relationship with the ground isn’t disturbed by buoyancy and I’m not subject to the ever changing mind of the tide. And there’s the whole prune-like skin and potential dehydration thing I mentioned before.
If you’re struggling to derive the metaphor from this, let me guide you.
As I was amidst the swell, I brought up this literal and metaphoric experience in conversation with my family. I said,
“Yanno, this is a metaphor for life. You have to fight through the waves to get to where they’ve calmed down and you can float. That’s life. You have to fight through the hard stuff to get to the calm.”
My dad, in the way that he oftentimes does with many a thing, chuckled and puts this so simply and unintentionally eloquently,
“Ah, yes, you have to fight the break to get to the swell.” – Rusty Duncan, my beloved daddy who I will always refer to as “daddy,” the wisest and most selfless man I have ever known.
My brain clicked. That’s it! I thought. Not only did I just develop a new mantra for life’s hard times (repeat after me: Break before swell. Break before swell. BREAK BEFORE SWELL. With feeling, everyone. Or at least until you believe it), but hey look, I got a blog out of it. Sorry dad, I don’t make money off of my blog at this moment in time, but if I did, I would buy you a fresh bottle of Jack Daniel’s with the earnings as a thank-you gift. Maybe I’ll do that anyway, just because I love you and I’ll miss doing that one day (okay cue my tears now).
Let me start at the beginning. This is where we switch to the “you” pronoun:
Part I – Sitting at the shore, deciding whether or not to venture into the water.
Whether you’ve swam in the ocean dozens upon dozens of times or have never stepped foot into the surf, something about the water is calling you there. With regards to life, I equate this to the desire to make a change to some aspect of your world. That could be anything from losing weight, to moving to a new place, to starting a new career, or simply garnering a new perspective on something. The water is the change. The shore is where you are now. The shore is where you decide you want the change and try to plan for it. So you get up and go.
Part II – The layer of fragmented shells.
In the metaphoric sense, the fragmented shells are the first roadblock that you face when trying to embark on a new path. The shells are the gentlest opposition you will face, but no journey begins without at least a little struggle. Let it also be noted that this is where you first get a feeling for the temperature of the waters you’re wading into. It may feel cold at first, and you may retreat on contact. Please don’t. Unless the temperatures are dangerously low (and sometimes in the metaphor of life, they are, and you have to go in anyway and fight harder), you are just being a wimp. Deal with the temperature. You’ll acclimate. That’s what the body does. We adapt.
ANYWHO. The shells. They don’t feel great. The more you go through life and do things (like dance or lift weights or anything else that quite literally thickens your skin), the more calluses you develop. They aren’t always the prettiest things, but they make you tougher. They make the shells less painful to walk through. They help make that initial roadblock on the path to change a bit easier to bear. In life, the difficulties we face, big or small, are what bring us through. Our scars and our calluses serve as physical reminders that we’ve gone through something that physically damaged us. Our bodies, the amazing mechanisms that they are, repaired us and made something new… Something more protective. Something stronger. The body and the mind are inevitably connected, and the physical pains we experience, regardless of size, provide yet another metaphor for overcoming struggle. Just like we can be physically marred and come back from it, we can by emotionally wounded and rise up. Both require a degree of strengthening ourselves and vanquishing an antagonist. Every small change in life begins with a small bit of strengthening, and there is a relatively linear relationship between the size of change as it pertains to the size of strength necessary to make it. You get tougher over time and learn not to cringe so much as you walk over the splintered shells in your own world.
Part III – The break.
So, the first real struggle has arrived. If you’re new to the ocean, you may be a bit preoccupied with that first initial discomfort with the whole shell debacle. I highly recommend you get over that now. The sand feels a lot softer now, so nut up buttercup, because the waves are coming. Whenever you make any sort of change in your life, you will face some form of resistance. That’s how change is made. We are creatures of habit in the worst and best ways, so making any sort of change is a challenge. Remaining stagnant and doing what you’ve always done is comfortable. We love the feeling of safety, and our primal survival instinct tells us to look for the safest option. That’s how we survive. But even safety requires change from time to time. Maybe your old comfort zone isn’t safe any longer. Maybe your current relationship turned toxic and you need to get out. Maybe the job you hold simply isn’t paying the bills, and you need (or simply want) a better financial situation. Do you think that getting from your comfortable (or previously comfortable) shoreline to your new state of swell is going to be a cakewalk? If you do, prepare to be defeated by life’s current. You’ve already decided to change, and now it’s time to test your mettle. The first few struggles you brace in life are going to feel the most uncomfortable because you simply aren’t used to them. Do your best. Don’t play the victim. You decided to go into the water. You wanted to reach the swell instead of staying on the sand. Whether it was out of need for a better life, or simply out of want for one, this is on you. That’s why the phrase is “Brace yourself,” because no one is going to brace you for you. Again, the first few waves are going to suck. You may be hit with a small one at first, or a huge one. Either way, you have to deal with it. Don’t be discouraged; you’re getting stronger. The more waves you pass through, the less ominous they become. I suggest walking through the ones you gauge as smaller and easier to handle. Stand and brace yourself against the big ones – face them. Face your problems. Don’t pretend they aren’t happening, because that’s how people drown. The waves are there, and so are you. While you’re on the shore, grow strong enough so that you know when you venture into the water, you can handle what the ocean throws your way.
And then there’s the dive… Diving into a big wave is, to me, akin to going headfirst towards what scares you. Diving into a wave creates a bit more uncertainty than standing and bracing it because, as I mentioned before, you have no idea what’s going to happen to you underneath the water. Things from your past (like my childhood experience of being tossed around in the surf) may scare you. They may scare you for a long time. For a while, they may keep you from going after what you know in your heart you truly want. That’s why I suggest getting stronger while you’re on shore. Journal, read, write, expand. Figure out where your fears are actually coming from. Then, one day, when you decide to step into the water again, you’re not only stronger, but more courageous.
Trust in your own strength. Take risks. Take a deep breath, and just go for it. You may get tossed around a bit again. You may get hurt. But that whole thing about scars and calluses and pain still applies. If you truly want something, you have to want it more than you’re afraid of it, or what might happen when you’re pursuing it, or what might happen when you get it (yeah, you heard me. Fear of your own dreams becoming reality plagues many a person). You are a fighter. It’s all going to be okay.
Part IV: The swell.
Here we are. This part will likely be brief in comparison to the others. You’ve made it! You reached your goal, you got the job, you got out of the toxic relationship, you moved to that new city, whatever your “swell” was to you. Now, you get to float. That open sea in front of you? That’s more swells. That’s more space for you to dream of the things you want to accomplish, for you to think of the life you want to curate for yourself. That space out there in front of you is the beautiful unknown. You just became a part of the swell that you longed after on the shore. You got to where you wanted to be. Are things perfect here? No. There’s still some uncertainty and discomfort; there are still big old waves out here from time to time. But for the most part, you’re calm. You’re peaceful. You can look back at the breaking waves and the crunchy shells and say to yourself, “I got through that. I got stronger from that. I wanted something and I went for it.” Chill here for a bit. Soak it up. Do a lot of thinking. Have meaningful conversations (even though those should happen regardless of where you’re at). Simply take a second to be 100% present, away from all of the things of the world, all of your chains, all of your demons, all of your hurt. Just be. A human, being. Breathe.
Part V: Going back to land.
First and foremost, please don’t misconstrue this segment to mean “go back to the lackluster situation you were in before you decided to make the change and grow stronger.” That’s not what this is at all. Think of it more so as another opportunity for change. The reality is, you don’t continue growing as a human when all you do is relish in your successes, or “float.” You have to keep moving. Just like you are not defined by a failure, you aren’t defined by a success, either. Don’t let anything go to your head and make you cocky. Acknowledge what you’ve done. Use this mastery experience (aka that moment when you accomplish something you wanted and thus build up your self-confidence), to motivate you to keep moving forward. You still have growing to do and strength to develop. These are the experiences that set you up for continued inspiration and growth.
Going back to the shore isn’t easy either. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that reaching a goal or accomplishing something means it’s going to be an easy ride from here on out, but such is not the case. Just like there will always be waves in the ocean, there will always be hardships in life. I don’t care who you are or how perfect your life may look to an outsider; struggle happens to everyone. When you decide to finish acknowledging one accomplishment and conjure up another goal, you’re going to have to face struggle all over again. Sometimes finding inspiration for a new idea is the struggle in and of itself. Regardless, take your newly garnered strength and prepare for the next great thing. It’s coming, but only if you continue to get stronger.
As you venture back to shore, i.e. to draft up your next goal or simply redirect your mind, you still have to be strong.
One particular metaphor (giving myself a metaphoric crown as the metaphoric queen of metaphors) that I conjured up this past week was learning to love and embrace something about yourself that you once disliked. As I was fighting the water back up to the shore, feeling the water try to pull me back, I realized the amount of effort it took on behalf of my legs to walk through the tide. When I was growing up, I held so much hatred towards my lower body. My legs looked big in comparison to my peers, and I refused to wear shorts. I remember wearing a pair of blue ones for the last time in first grade, and didn’t buy another pair until I was a freshman in high school. I was too self-conscious. In comes the whole “getting stronger during your time on the shore” thing. I danced my whole life. I learned how to lift weights. I built some really freaking strong legs. I learned to stop comparing my legs to someone else with a completely different body structure, because, guess what? I learned that my life and my body will never look like someone else’s. And that’s something to celebrate, not hate. My legs have become one of my favorite physical characteristics, for how they look and for what they do for me.
As I was walking out of the ocean, I realized how much harder it would be to get out of the water if I didn’t have a strong lower half. The thing that I used to hate most about myself has helped me accomplish so much, from squatting 250lbs, to walking across and placing at numerous bodybuilding competitions, to getting out of the ocean.
The lesson? Learn to love yourself wholly and fully. Who knows? Maybe the thing that you dislike most about yourself will grow to be one of your favorite attributes, physically or emotionally. Life is too short for self-hatred… You have a shore to reach and more swells to get to in the future. Spending exorbitant amounts of time at war with yourself (or anyone else, for that matter) only distracts you from your goal. Focus on the good. Focus on changing the lens through which you see situations. There is opportunity in all things.
Part VI: The return.
And we’re back to the shore. Take some time to dry off, soak up the sun, and reflect on your time in the water. What went well? What didn’t? Where could you improve? This is your chance to center your mind and body once again and set up for success in the future. For me, my “shore” often includes things like spending a weekend in my hometown with my family and my dogs, spending time in nature (the beach is preferred, if you haven’t gathered that by now), meditating, doing something creative, and many other things. Find what helps to center you, and do that, especially when you feel stuck in a rut. This time spent on the shore is training – it’s time for you to get stronger, to dream, to plan, to reflect on the life you’re currently living and what you want out of it as a whole.
Whether you’re lying on the shore, walking over the shells, bracing the break, floating in the swell, or coming back in, find beauty in every moment. For God’s sake, you’re at the beach. You have another day in this glorious life. Not every moment is perfect, and it isn’t supposed to be. Success is great, but fighting for something bigger than where you are now is beautiful too. Learn yourself. Get strong. Surround yourself with people that make it easier to face the toughest waves simply with their presence, because no one wants to go through life alone. Above all, never stop growing, learning, and facing your fears. You have one shot… Do with it what you will. I suggest making something beautiful.
Until next time, lovelies.