Something shifted in me that afternoon when I completed that hour swim. It wasn’t so much that I was surprised I’d done it – I’d stayed in for at least an hour on every previous swim, and I knew that a one hour swim was so far within my capability it was laughable. It was more that I’d chosen to do it; I’d chosen to go back and swim round that blooming bay for an hour when I didn’t have to, I’d chosen to stay in for an hour when I didn’t have to. I didn’t do it because I thought I should, or because anyone told me too, or because I felt that the guides were pushing me to do it. I did it because I chose to, and that made all the difference.
When I went back to the accommodation that afternoon, I did some serious thinking. The next morning would be our last big swim, lasting three hours, and it was set to be choppy. I hadn’t said it to anyone, but I really, really wanted to do two hours. I really did. Even now I find it hard to put into words just why. I can hear my friends who swim for fun asking me why. Why stay in when you’re not enjoying it? Why keep putting yourself through unpleasantness when there’s no good reason?
The thing is, it felt as though there was a good reason. It was partly because I’d tried and failed, and I didn’t want to go home not having succeeded, but it was something else as well. It felt as though if I didn’t, I would have failed something in me, something important to my identity, something that didn’t want to just give up and let the demons win. It felt as though, if I didn’t swim two hours the next day, no matter how hard it was, then forever after, whenever I faced some difficult challenge, I would do so believing that I am the sort of person who gives up. It felt as though by giving in and not doing it because it was “too hard” I would somehow take that “giving up” into me and make it part of myself. I wanted to do that two hour swim, in short, because I didn’t want to think of myself as the sort of person who gives up.
This is a difficult thing to express in words, but there is a wonderful poem by C.P. Cavafy, the great Greek poet, called “Who declares…the great No” about exactly this sort of moment, the moment when we have to make a choice. It was a tiny, tiny, choice for me, of course, but isn’t that what life is, a series of tiny and seemingly unimportant choices which turn us into the people we eventually become? Here’s the poem:
For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it
he goes from honour to honour, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no – the right no –
drags him down all his life.