Treading Water

Someone asked me the other day how I was doing. I told them that I felt as if I was ‘treading water’. Treading water takes quite a lot of effort, but you don’t go anywhere. When I said it, it sounded kind of negative. That’s how I meant it to be. I don’t feel that I am able to move forward, and that it’s taking quite a lot of energy right now to keep my head above the water.

‘Treading water’ is about floating with your head above the water whilst stabilising yourself by moving your arms and legs. It’s about staying, in principle at least, in one place. It’s about being active, but making no progress.[i] That definitely captures something of how I feel right now, and it definitely doesn’t feel very positive.  

In a strange way, my answer has been nagging away at the back of my mind for a few days. It’s as if I’ve picked up the concept of treading water, turned it over and over in my mind and looked at it from different angles. I find that it’s taken on a whole new perspective.

I remembered that I learned to tread water as a child. It’s about using the minimum energy to keep your head above water. If you do it properly, it’s the most energy efficient way of staying in one place when you are out of your depth. Of course, it’s actually a survival technique. At a time of crisis when you are struggling to keep afloat, treading water helps you to regulate your breathing, reduces your heart rate and eases the sense of panic. It helps you to recover a level of calmness, so that you can take stock of your situation, get your bearings, conserve your energy and make a rational decision about what to do next.

Suddenly, treading water doesn’t seem so negative after all.

For all of us, there are moments in life when we feel that we have lost control. We feel as if we are getting nowhere – making no progress. The temptation is to fight against the pressures around us. To try to re-establish order and control. But that can be as exhausting as swimming against the tide. Sometimes, at a time of personal difficulty, it is better to allow yourself to take space. To slow down. To tread water. Regulate your breathing. Allow your heart rate to slow. Allow the sense of panic to subside.

So it seems to me that it’s actually quite a good thing to tread water for a while. Use the moment to take stock of your surroundings. Get your bearings – recognise how you got to where you are. Allow your batteries to re-charge. In your calmed state, try to make a rational decision about what to do next.

As a Christian, I found that there is something very spiritual in this concept. Looked at the right way, when you find yourself struggling, taking a moment to tread water can be restorative. It’s energising. It’s a moment to get your bearings and rebuild your relationship with God. It’s a time when the challenges of life can get back into perspective. It’s a moment of rebuilding your strength. Importantly, it’s a time of preparation to move forwards.

‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Psalm 46:10

That verse is a comfort to lots of us. But here’s the thing. You can’t be still while you’re thrashing around trying to swim against the tide. To be still, you need to stop.

How am I feeling? 

I feel like I’m treading water. I’m getting ready to move on. That’s a good thing.

Keep on praying.

This post was originally published in February 2021.
Richard Jackson is a former Director of Family Foundations Trust. You can email him here.

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