Learning to Breathe Underwater

Be the Fish

Learning to “breathe underwater” is not a course taught in school or online. It is one of the hard lessons only learned in the midst of life.

[Image: MehganTheMermaidUploaded by Mhg165CC BY 3.0; words added]

Recent conversations with a couple of friends have helped me better to understand my becoming over these past 75+ years. The most significant single event in my life was a major trauma suffered by my wife 35 years ago. A metabolic imbalance attacked her brain, leaving her on the knife-edge between life and death. The life force won the battle, but brain functioning was a wounded casualty. This past week marks one year since her death, which resulted from a vicious, rapid growing brain tumor. Hers was a life filled with grace; mine, a privilege to have been able to share in her life.

I awakened this morning to a memory from seminary days. One of my professors (or, perhaps, one of the authors I had read) indicated that the name of the divine presence encountered by Moses in the burning bush — YHWH — was to be translated as “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” Defining God’s presence and essence will always be a task beyond the capacity of human language. That impossibility, however, has never stopped the human imagination from trying. In relating Moses’ encounter, the author of Genesis has provided us with one of the most enigmatic (and insightful) images of God — God is the possibility of being, of becoming.

Lest we become too arrogant, thinking we have captured the essence of God, Bishop Ambrose (4th Century bishop of Milan) suggested that we might learn something from the fish of the sea — namely, while the seas toss and turn in storms above, “the fish swims, he is not swallowed up because he is used to swimming.” (cited in Catherine Keller’s On the Mystery, 2008, p. 45) “Be the fish,” Ambrose advises.

Thirty five years ago, as my wife, Susan, was barely alive in the hospital’s ICU, I was confronted with a question that set in motion a whole new possibility of becoming for me. The doctor asked, “If your wife has another episode, do we treat it or let it take her?” An answer came from somewhere deep within me, without reservation, with an assuredness that was beyond what I would have thought was my capacity, “We let it take her.” As Susan and I had previously dealt with the death of family members, we had already had the conversation about not wanting to be kept alive just for the sake of preserving life if some measure of quality were not present. Neither of us expected to have to act on that conversation so early in our marriage, but life always has surprises for us.

The medical staff never had to implement my decision. Susan, never had a relapse and, ever so slowly, began to come back to life. A month in the hospital, followed by about six months in a rehab facility, then dismissal from rehab because none of the traditional therapies were having positive results — finally Sue came home. And I had to learn anew how to swim like a fish. Ambrose was correct, the storms of the sea were violent; waves tossed and turned and beat fiercely on the shore. The underwater currents were also quite dramatic. Miracle upon miracle, I learned to swim like a fish. I learned to “breathe underwater.”

-and I still don’t know how it happened –
the sea came.
Without warning.
Without welcome, even

And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.

That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbors,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbors,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.
— Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
(from an unpublished work)

I can’t explain how it happened. I don’t know if it was a result of my concerted effort or if it was a gracious gift visited upon me. I don’t know if it was a result of the prayers of many family and friends or if was one of those quirky things that just seem to happen in life. I do know that I had no expectations when we brought Susan home from rehab — no expectations about whether she would get better or not; not even any expectations about whether our family could cope and manage her limited capacity. I do know that Susan had committed herself to me at the time of our marriage and, as a result, I had no choice but to move ahead. I did know, at some deep level within me, that regardless of what Sue was to become (or not become) our two children and I would not be prevented from becoming what we might become.

And so, since “there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning,” I learned to “be the fish” and “to breathe underwater.”

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4 Replies to “Learning to Breathe Underwater”

  1. Bart, this is beautiful and a wonderful guide for all of us. Your personal example serves me as a gentle role model of what I believe God wants me to be to serve as God would serve, lovingly and intentionally. Susan knew she was loved to the very end at the deepest level possible. There is no greater love nor gift.

  2. Thank you Bart for sharing your wisdom with all of us. Your words are beautiful and powerful and I would expect nothing less from you. I will take this lesson, this powerful visual image, and use it again and again in my own ministry. Thank you! You continue to be in my thoughts and prayers, especially this time of year.

    1. Pat, Good to hear from you. Best wishes for you, your family, and your ministry. Say “Hi”for me to all my friends in South Dakota.

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