I swam the width of the Chesapeake Bay, between the two bridges, when I was 16 years old. I had been a competitive swimmer from the age of 7, and had become quite accomplished by high school. Thanks to our coach, many of the members of our team – including my younger sister Nicole – signed up and trained for the Bay Bridge Swim Race, a 4.4-mile race done once a year by over a thousand swimmers in the Chesapeake Bay area and well beyond.
The very next year, at age 17, I was excited to do it again. This time around I decided to do it without the support of a wet-suit, even though the water was cold. I was feeling cocky, strong, and indefatigable, without a thought of the dangers ahead. My sister and others on the team also joined in, though with wet-suits. When the horn blew to begin the race I was in a sea of swimmers being kicked at and swum over, and in turn swimming over those around me. By a few hundred yards into the race, the density of swimmers quickly dissolved. I was now unencumbered by the many wet bodies jostling here and there.
By the time I got about a third of the way into the race I was exhausted. My muscles were not working like they normally do in a heated pool and, without a wet-suit on, my skinny body was not able to hold in heat, even while moving. More detrimental to my race was the current of the Bay. It happened to be particularly strong that day. I was swimming so hard just to stay within the legal course of the race. Before I knew it I was picked up by one of the many boats along the route, along with several other disheartened swimmers. My race was done and my pride cooked.
I was taken by boat to the other shore and felt defeated. I went to look for my teammates. To my surprise Nicole had not yet been pulled from the Bay the way I was. I wasn’t sure if she was lost downstream, or still swimming. Within 90 minutes she emerged at the finish line with another teammate – Jason – running alongside her on the sandy shore. In the swimming pool I was consistently faster than both my sister and Jason. But in the Bay, they had both defeated me.
I came to learn that Nicole and Jason were also surprised by the current, and at the moment when they almost gave up they met each other in the middle of the Bay amidst hundreds of others. They chose to stay with each other, to encourage each other, and though the current was exceedingly strong they both made it to the other side.
I learned an important and humbling lesson from my younger sister. It doesn’t matter how strong one individual may be on their own. Two less strong individuals can become much stronger and effective when they work together and help each other out on a shared goal.
I return to this lesson of my sister 25 years later. It’s not enough for me—by myself—to shoulder the many fears raised by the rhetoric both during and post-election. In fact, it’s asking anybody too much to try to bear by oneself the suffering not just of the election, but of any kind of pain or feeling of deep loss. That would be like trying to swim the Bay without the support of a wet-suit and my friends. On the other hand, it’s so much easier to hold any burden when I share it with true friends.
In Buddhism, suffering is the 1st of the Four Noble Truths. The way out of it is through embracing it – seeing it as an ally toward personal and social transformation. However, suffering does not need to be embraced alone. We don’t have to bear the deep anxiety generated and accepted in this election season all by our self. Let’s be a support to each other. We can turn to the people right next to us, listen to them, and ask them how they are doing. Rather than isolating ourselves we can create more meaningful connections with those right around us.
Today I chose to learn from the lesson my sister gave me: I am stronger with the support of others.
Daishin Eric McCabe began formal training in Zen in 1998 at Mount Equity Zendo in central Pennsylvania. His 15 years of monastic life included practicing at Buddhist temples in Japan, France, California and the Midwest. Since coming to Ames in 2014, his goals are to (1) teach meditation, yoga and Japanese Zen Calligraphy as a means of finding both inner contentment and outer direction; (2) speak and inform the general public about Buddhism; and (3) offer Buddhist resources to foster meaningful dialogue and action on climate change. To this end he has created Zen Fields, which he intends to make into a non-profit organization. Daishin majored in Religion and Biology as an undergraduate at Bucknell University, and was recently granted the equivalent of a Master of Divinity through the Association of Professional Chaplains. He lives with his wife in Ames.