Swimming with sharks

“Whatcha going to do with those fish guts?” I called up from the water to Audrey on the dock, who was filleting the day’s catch to cook up for Sunday supper, along with the remainder of the calamari bait. “Throw ’em in the water,” she answered. “Not while I’m down here!” I responded, alarmed. “Of course not, I’ll wait till you’re out,” Audrey laughed at me.

I had every right to be a bit skittish though. The evening before, I had been cooking dinner with marine researchers who showed me videos of sharks swarming down at their dock when the fishermen cleaned their catch. Needless to say, I had no desire to be present when Audrey’s tempting morsels went in the water. While we had no expectation of seeing sharks swarm up for these meager trimmings from our catch of only two groupers, there were other creatures to think about. For instance, the several large barracudas who had been patrolling the spot where I was swimming about half an hour before I jumped in the water. While we had cast lines excitedly in their direction while on dry land, I had no desire to encounter those lovely beasts when they had the home court advantage.

But barracudas or no barracudas, it had not taken Brenda too much convincing to get me into the water with her. First of all, the sand fleas, or no-see-ums, had been tormenting me all day – and nothing numbs that torturous itch like salt water. There are moments when I think I would rather take my chances with barracudas then sand fleas. Second, Brenda’s logic had been simple and compelling as she called out, “Get in the water with me!” The logic went something like this – Audrey and Brenda had not gotten many bites on their fishing bait that day, so we were not likely to get many bites ourselves. “Besides,” Audrey completed Brenda’s argument, “Brenda is already in there, if they are going to bite anything, they are going to bite her first.” With that air-tight argument sealed, I jumped off the rocks and felt the cool water rush over me.

This is how I try to live life these days. A little less caution, a little more daring. A little less thinking, a little more doing. A little less hedging, a little more betting (*figure of speech, I am Methodist clergy after all). It has occurred to me that the majority of the struggle that I have experienced in my life has been through a basic lack of daring, lack of courage. In all my years of living on the margins, pushing the envelope, and laying it all on the line – there has always been a basic area where I have lacked courage. There has always been one person who I have let be trampled without fighting back. Myself. I have never had the courage to refuse a salary that was lowered because of my age, gender, or marital status. I have stood silent time and again when I was told decisions were being made about me because I did “not have a family to support.” I have twice signed papers that, for legal reasons, said I was voluntarily forfeiting part of my rights as an Elder – while inside a part of me died at how helpless and disempowered it made me feel. No one understood the price my soul paid for all that self-betrayal, all that cowardice under pressure.  In all my years, only one person fought for me to have more not less, but that person was not me.  A part of me hopes that if others knew they would not have made choices and statements that made me feel that I was worth less than a man, worth less because I was single, worth less because I was young. In my weakest moments a voice inside pulled the words closer together and whispered “they think you’re worth less… worth-less… worthless” – while I tried to protest that I was a child of God and a person of sacred worth.

When I was in college, I noticed my senior year that rather than promoting the junior and senior women to manager positions, underclass men were being brought in to manage us. Concerned, I began to look at our salaries as well, and teaming up with another Bachelor of Science, I graphed the starting salaries of employees through to the current period. A disturbing trend emerged. It appeared from our graph that the men had been receiving a raise of $0.50 per hour per year. Most of the women, myself included, had never received a raise – which is a big deal when you are working three different jobs to put yourself through school as I was at the time. I shared my graph with the supervisors, who took the situation seriously. But it did little to help those of us approaching graduation; my stomach dropped to think of how much accumulated income loss that was for all of us over the course of years.

A year earlier I had sat in the same building and met with representatives from the fraternities on campus in my role as head of Orientation. They were proposing I accept their sponsorship of a party on campus with an open bar during Orientation the next year. I was having trouble following the logic of why it would be a good idea to have a party with an open bar on a dry campus for eighteen year olds who were away from home for the first time. It was, to put it bluntly, part of my role to educate in order to prevent not facilitate those kinds of situations. It would not be the last time in my life I would see a man’s face turn that shade of red, as one of the young gentlemen began to threaten the five foot two blonde who stood as in immovable impediment to the way he was accustomed to having. “We’ll tell all the freshman you aren’t cool!” finally burst out of his mouth as the final threat in his escalating tirade. It was the kind of sad threat that just evokes pity for the speaker no matter how frightening they are trying to sound. I’ll never know if he followed through on his threat, but I found no evidence of it being effective. Like many times before and many times after, I sat in that large circle of men without a hesitating bone in my body when it came to protecting others, but little knowledge of how to protect myself.

I will admit that I am a person with more courage than many, but it is a certain kind of courage. It is a courage that cracks the door, but doesn’t push it open. It is a courage that can speak of incidents that took place a decade ago, but not a month ago. It is a courage that speaks enough truth to make people uncomfortable, but not so much truth that they stone me. It is a courage that stands unmoved by peer pressure, but crumbled under burnout. It is a courage that swims with the sharks, but does not have a clue how to avoid being eaten alive. It is a courage that has grown weary after paying over and over again the consequences for trying to “do the right thing” – that has begun to have a delayed response element to it as a result.

So, I am taking this time apart to try to hone my courage into something different. I want to have a courage that is directed, and effective. Not idealistic, but realistic. A courage that may swim in the same waters as sharks, but is wise enough not to go in at feeding time. A courage that is able to say “yes” to a calling that is a challenge, while still retaining the wisdom to say an emphatic “no” to a trap masquerading as an opportunity. A courage that is willing to “go,” but also strong enough to say “Stop!” A courage that is rooted in calling not coercion, grounded in experience rather than innocence, acting out of wisdom rather than naivete.

So these days, I may swim in deep waters, but as I look out my window and see that wind is whipping the ocean into an angry white froth, I know that I will not be going in the water today. My courage is growing up. I am taking every opportunity to say yes to the things that scare me, but not the things that will kill me. I am learning to tell the difference. For true courage, wise courage, and lots of it, will be a main requirement for clergy in the days ahead.

I have learned that the things we avoid doing out of fear, are often the same things that have the power to save our lives, the power to let us live.

Audrey and Brenda fish for supper before we go for a swim
Audrey and Brenda fish for supper before we go for a swim

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