One warm September day in 1998, five of us from St. John’s College went for a swim in the Chesapeake Bay at a beach about ten miles from campus. It was so much fun we kept going back, even into October. We were pleased with ourselves, swimming in what we thought was pretty cold water. It may have ended there, but then someone asked, “Why don’t we swim outdoors every month of the school year?” Feeling flush with hope or hubris, we formalized our agreement. The St. John’s College Polar Bear Club was born.
The air temperatures that November were balmy. It was 65 degrees the day we took our third plunge as a group. The water was cold, but not cold enough to keep us from laughing as we swam around. Still, the swim felt like a great achievement. At dinner that evening we exchanged knowing glances, as if we were soldiers who survived combat together.
For some reason we were in no rush to get our December swim accomplished. As the
temperatures began to drop, someone would say in passing, “Hey, we should get our swim in before it gets real cold.” But we kept putting it off.
Christmas came and went, and still no swim. Everyone was still in town, so a meeting of the Polar Bear Club was called to order. The air temperature was now consistently around freezing, 32 degrees. Mary, our leader, pointed out we were in serious danger of failing our mission as an organization and also of invalidating any previous claim to toughness. Dave, our Second-in-Command, objected, asserting that swimming in this weather could lead to death. Mary and Dave were dating, and I thought I noticed a contentious glare exchanged between them.
My anxiety about whether to take the icy swim made me unusually passive about the decision. We all deferred to Mary and she determined we would swim the next day, New Year’s Eve, December 31st at 6pm at the same beach. This was not quite the 11th hour, but it was awfully close.
The next evening we piled into my car and headed out to the beach. The mood was subdued, a far cry from our earlier swims. Outside it was 24 degrees, with wind gusts up to 20 mph. The normally tranquil beach had waves as big as ocean surf. It was dark and as uninviting a setting for swimming as you can imagine. We stood on the beach, miserable; shivering in our bathing suits and winter coats, huddled tightly to protect against the wind.
We argued again about whether we should risk this. Mary was for it. Dave was against it. I was wavering. I wanted Mary and Dave to be my mommy and daddy and tell me what to do. It was so cold.
Finally Mary took charge, ripping off her furry coat and shouting, “I don’t care! I’m going in!” She sprinted to the water and dove in. I mechanically followed her into the water. One of the others followed me in. Dave and the last member remained on the beach.
When you plunge into water that cold, two things happen in an instant. One, your body heat gathers to your core, which leaves your outer body, from head to toe, throbbing in pain. Even your face hurts. Two, panic takes over. The rational mind shuts down, except for one thought: MUST GET OUT NOW. To linger in the water after the initial shock of submersion would take an unnatural resolve.
We emerged from the water, screaming. But then a wonderful thing happened. Within 15 seconds of leaving the water, my body heat rushed back out to my skin and limbs. This produced an ecstatic sense of well-being. The same happened to the others swimmers. We stood on the beach without our coats, laughing, warm and happy and feeling, most amazing of all, a sweet absence of anxiety. That moment remains one of my fondest memories: a transformation of one of my most anxiety-ridden moments ever into one of the most magical.
Later, when I pondered this peak experience, I became upset at how my anxiety had
incapacitated me, and how passive I had felt. Soren Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” If he is correct, then the human inclination to escape anxiety could very well be an attempt to escape from freedom. A desire to escape anxiety by escaping freedom; did that explain my passivity?
One could argue that polar bear swimming is a frivolous activity. But my anxiety was real and dizzying because real freedom was involved. I had two choices, swim or not swim, and both were painful. Saying “I wanted Mary and Dave to be my mommy and daddy” was a wisecrack perhaps, but on that beach I dearly wanted them to choose for me. It is truly frightening that all it took for me to be willing to forfeit my freedom of choice was a certain sufficient level of anxiety. This contradicted what I thought I stood for in the pursuit of a free life.
Our society regards anxiety as an enemy to happiness, not an ally. It feels so good to make anxieties disappear that there is widespread sympathy for removing them through almost any means, such as prescribed medications, alcohol and, increasingly, marijuana. I understand that sometimes incapacitating anxiety requires direct intervention. But I wonder how often we slavishly blunt anxiety to flee the “dizziness of freedom.” What disturbing irony it would be if activities we pursue in the name of freedom, may in truth accomplish a flight from freedom.
Examining the origins of anxiety may reveal our present needs that are unfamiliar to us, but still deeply felt. What a rich source of self-knowledge is that state, if we can learn to tolerate it. For freedom’s sake, are we willing to attend to our anxiety and learn its lessons instead of blotting it out? What if the resolve to do so is unnatural? Would that mean that, for all our talk about cherishing personal freedom, we are more inclined to choose comfort and security?
Embracing freedom means facing our anxiety with courage and curiosity, when everything inside us would rather flee that encounter. This is one of many fascinating and fruitful entrances to the well examined life, and the well examined society.