Saturday, 16 March 2013

But you swam the Channel....

This week, I had to go to the dentist. It is a mundane bit of everyday life that has no obvious place in a swimming blog, except that it's not at all mundane to me because I am scared of the dentist. And historically, I have dealt with this rumbling fear by easing myself into a powerful state of denial and simply not going. I eat well and clean my teeth with almost religious fervour, and in exchange, I have allowed myself to give in to my fear of dentistry and only engage with it very sporadically. In this case, it has been 4 years since my last visit. But then, last weekend, I munched on some delicious wholemeal bread, packed full of seeds and grains; biting down on a hard seed, a chunk of one of my back teeth broke off.   Even in my well-rehearsed state of dental denial, I had to accept that I couldn't just leave this - I'm a coward, but not an idiot.

Setting aside the cruel irony of busting a tooth on a food product presumed to bestow all kinds of health and well-being, the reason I'm telling you all this is what followed. I told a few people what had happened, no doubt seeking sympathy and support for my imagined ordeal to come. Several of my confidantes expressed surprise at my fear of the dentist, probably because I'm 45 years old and should know better, but also explicitly because they saw it as at odds with the swimming: "But you swam the Channel..." they exclaimed. I've noticed that this comes up at other times too - for example, if I complain that I'm very tired, or if I express disgust at something: "But you swam the Channel...".

I'm intrigued by what this says both about how I am seen, and about how Channel swimming is seen. When I was training for my Channel swim in 2010, my colleague and friend, Rachel Cohen, categorised for me the negative responses that I had received (and that she had received when telling people about it in her role as vicarious follower of Channel swimming) in the following schematic, drawn on my office whiteboard:


There's a lot of talk within the marathon swimming community, especially in the ongoing debates about maintaining the 'purity' of the sport, that people outside of the sport might underestimate its challenges in the wake of high profile or undeclared 'assisted' crossings. But my experience is really the opposite - that people overestimate it, often projecting their own fears onto their imagination of what the swimming involves. Many people, including competent swimmers, fear deep water because of the inability to see what lies below; others are disgusted by imagined slicks of pollution, sewerage and other sordid nasties. As an aside, my favourite response so far to the news that I'm doing MIMS is: "But isn't it full of bodies?" By extension, then, these assumptions also presume my own bravery in overcoming these obstacles (and perhaps the foolish pointlessness of doing so) - a bravery that is projected into a universal character trait that then presumes my immunity to fears in other aspects of my life, both irrational and rational. This is very far from the truth. 

Firstly, fear is highly contextual and idiosyncratic, especially where fears are irrational or disproportionate. Someone who fears the pollution of dead bodies floating in the waters around Manhattan does not necessarily fear the dentist. And secondly, it's only brave if you're afraid of it in the first place. Swimming the Channel says nothing about my ability to overcome fear, since there is little about it that I find frightening. I have certainly felt moments of fear: for example, at the start of my Catalina Channel swim I was almost paralysed with fear about sharks when it was time to jump in. I have also had moments of profound disgust; a shiver of repulsion still runs down my spine when I recall getting a jellyfish full on in the face in Dover harbour - squishy body, then long tentacles dragging across my face and then down the full length of my body. It was toe-curlingly vile, and it was only the embarrassment of having to explain why I was getting out that kept me in the water. But in the bigger picture, I am neither afraid of, nor disgusted by, Channel swimming, and as a result, I don't experience it as a 'brave' thing to do. (I do think it's pretty pointless, but for me, that's the glory of it). 

In short, then, having swum the Channel did nothing to help me when I sloped reluctantly to the dentist last week, just as my ability to be in cold water for long periods has done absolutely nothing to change my complete intolerance of the cold in any other setting (central heating, layers of clothes, electric blanket...I want it all). Context is everything. 

And my tooth is fine, thank you for asking. Or at least it will be after next Wednesday when I've had the permanent repair done. Perhaps I'll just go swimming instead....

1 comment:

  1. Now I feel totally re-assured about being in love with my blankets!

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