Back in High School, I was a competitive swimmer. No, I never broke any records, but was good enough to be on the team and consistent enough that the coach put me in relays and things like that. And so, during those years, I swam seemingly endless laps across the surface of the water of the swimming pool — so much so that often, when I got home from a late practice or meet, that I would fall asleep and dream about swimming more laps.
In college, though, I was introduced to something different by a friend of mine’s father who was a scuba instructor. One evening, while I was at the pool swimming laps, he took me to the side, strapped a tank on my back and taught me how to breathe through the regulator and let me loose. I had been certified with a snorkel and a mask before, so the principle was pretty easy, bu the contrast was profound.
Slowly, I descended to the bottom of the swimming pool in the area used for diving. I saw the other swimmers on the surface making laps and heard some of the commotion, but being 9 feet below them, underwater, it was strangely quiet and peaceful; I found myself largely sitting there, peacefully reflecting on life — contrasting the frantic pace of the busy “surface-swimmers” with the slower, more deliberate movements in the stillness of the deep.
It strikes me that life is reflected in that contrast. How often it is that we are so busy with the frantic pace of life that we are like those people swimming on the surface, completing lap after lap, exhausting themselves with labor, but never going any deeper than a few inches from the surface and how few people, take the time to slowly find the peace that comes with going deep into the waters of life.
It doesn’t matter what your calling in life happens to be, it is worth going deep and the satisfaction you will find in the deep waters will compensate for the “lack of laps” you complete on the surface.
1. While knowledge can be gained at the surface, wisdom is found in the depths. Education in the modern western world is largely about swimming laps. Like it or not, you almost cannot help it. Now, understand, my point is not to “bash the system,” though I do think the system has some serious flaws. My wife and I are both products of the system and she spent the majority of her teaching career in that system. And though I spent the majority of my teaching career in a private Christian school, it is still modeled on the same system (just with a Christian curriculum), so I lived it as well. This was the system that shaped both my college and my seminary education as well. There is so much to cover in a limited period of time — swimming laps is the only way to accomplish this.
Yet, if one is deliberate, one can make the time (at least occasionally) to go deep. For me, that meant guarding my Sundays from school responsibilities so that I could rest and read some things that were not required-reading (and read them at my own pace, meditating on them as I went). In college, I discovered this in debates that took place in the student lounge and in studying philosophy — not so much in the philosophy classroom as what took place when the philosophy professor opened his home so some of us could come and talk about ideas — where we were gathered out of a love for learning and ideas, which, after all, is what “philosophy” is all about anyway… And wisdom is not just knowing things, it is applying those things you know in life.
2. Going Deep takes time and patience. There is no doubt about that reality, the deeper you go, the more time you will spend going down rather than swimming laps. And so, there is a trade-off. If you work on an assembly line, the chances are, this won’t be valued. Sadly, at the Christian School where I served, this was only partly valued — in principle it was commended, but in practical application, we were kept so busy that we did not have time to do so. Even more sadly, this is often not appreciated in the church where all too often, people do not value the need for a pastor, for church leadership, and for others of influence in the church to think, reflect on what is being done, and to contemplate things deeply. All too often, if the pastor or those leading are not present for every church activity, people wonder what is wrong.
3. Not everyone likes going deep. Here’s the thing, when you are swimming laps, progress is easy to measure…lap one, lap two, lap three, etc… Going deep leaves things in a more undefined state. You don’t count laps when you are contemplating from the bottom of the pool. Yes, you can measure depth, but much of that is only done with respect to those who are swimming over top of you on the surface, but the reason you are swimming deep is not to count laps but to contemplate for a season. Scholars, scientists, and others who have mastered their field understand this — there comes a point where they focus more on growing in their understanding than on completing tasks. Tasks, of course, are still completed, but often for different reasons than the surface-swimmers are turning out laps. On the surface, tasks are completed to achieve goals, purposes, and ends which often are meant to enable more lap-swimming. In the deep, tasks are completed because the moment of epiphany is sought out. There is a difference and that difference makes people uncomfortable.
4. You occasionally need to surface. Here’s the thing; the oxygen tank only has so much air in it. Eventually you have to surface if only to gain a new tank. And, like with scuba diving in deeper contexts than a swimming pool, the ascent must be taken slowly as to not harm yourself (I have never had “the bends” or “decompression sickness,” but the way it has been described to me sounds like it can’t be any fun). Also, from the depths of the waters, things on the surface can become distorted if you stay down so long. This, I would argue, is why so many professors are so out of touch with reality — they live in the deep and rarely come up for air.
Working on an advanced degree is teaching me a lot about this. Every article that I read points me to another article or to a book that I need to read and the cycle seems endless. It is an enjoyable cycle for those who like being in the deep, but I have also been counseled that there comes a point when one is “deep enough” that one needs to come to the surface and start writing that dissertation. Otherwise it will never get written.
5. Like your vegetables, going deep is good for your soul even if you prefer swimming laps. Jesus told Martha that Mary had chosen what was better (Luke 10:42). That does not mean that the things Martha was doing were unimportant. It also did not mean that Mary was unwilling to help her sister after the teaching time was done. It simply meant that at the time and in that situation, Mary chose to go deep, listening to Jesus’ words and allowing the housework to wait. Laps would be swum later; it was good for her to go deep. If you are a Christian, the same wisdom applies, when it comes to Jesus, you need to go deep if you are going to grow wise. Again, this does not diminish the value of the Martha’s in the church (we need them), but even Martha needed to stop her laps and swim deeply on occasion.