I grew up on the water. Love it, spent my childhood in it, and a good chunk of my adulthood, too. But there’s a reason people use water when they want to drive you to the edge of sanity and break your spirit. If I say, “I’m going to drape a cloth over your mouth and soak it with water,” that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Oh, but it is. It can push strong-willed men right over the edge. In my military training I got familiar with the process of waterboarding: in essence, you are slowly, methodically being drowned to death, engulfed by water. There is something primal about the terror this touches.

When I was a kid, I saw a girl drown because of someone’s carelessness. I was there when they brought her body up and laid her out on the deck,  statue-still, never to take another breath. It was the first time I’d seen death, up close, ugly, and personal. I’ll never forget it. I’ve seen death take others, too, many times since then, including some close friends. Including my best friend. And I’ve seen other deaths, as well— my first business going up in smoke and taking my life savings with it, the dissolution of my marriage, projects that didn’t work out, friendships lost, the death of ego and dreams. Yes, I understood why my friend was afraid.

A few minutes later, Kamal showed up. Right on time. We sat at the pool’s edge, our legs in the water. I pushed off and slipped down under. He followed, lowering himself in slow and tense, hands gripping the lip of the wall. He’d never been in a  ten-foot depth before. “I’m in,” he murmured, but his body language was screaming, and there’s no way in hell I’m letting go of this wall! We got to work. That first day I kept things light. Nice and easy; almost too easy. The second day we repeated everything we did the first day and went a little further. The third day he did ten laps on his back. “You’re swimming, man,” I told him. He was startled to realize that it was true. On day four, instead of sitting down poolside and carefully slipping into the water, he went running to the edge, launched himself in the air, and landed in the pool in a humongous cannonball. Huge splash, water everywhere—and then Kamal’s face bobbing up in the middle of it, grinning like a kid. He had never done a cannonball before in his life. And that’s how every lesson started for the rest of the week: Kamal running to the edge, jumping off, and doing a giant cannonball into the pool, then surfacing with that Cheshire Cat grin. A big, grown-up, silver-haired kid.

I’d never seen anyone so happy in my life. On that third day, the day he did ten laps on his back and I told him, “You’re swimming, man,” and he realized that it was true, we had an interesting conversation at the end of the lesson. “You know, other people have tried to teach me,” he said, “but it never took. They would get me in the water, demonstrate a stroke, and then get impatient when I couldn’t do it. They would get frustrated and say, ‘It’s so easy, man, just try it.’ But I couldn’t ‘just try it.’ I was too terrified.” He looked out across the pool. “Until now,” I said. Still looking at the water, he nodded. “Yeah. Until now.” – Brandon T Webb

A Navy SEALs Guide to Mastering Fear

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