I was at the pool, waiting to dive, behind maybe 6 or 7 others, all younger than me, mostly female.
A young guy, maybe 16, steps up to the diving board. In my mind his name is Alex. Alex is a cool looking kid; slim, slightly tanned, trendy white boardshorts, scruffy blond surfer hair. Slightly goofy maybe, as most 16 year olds are, but cool.
Alex shuffles to the end of the diving board. He glances nervously to the poolside at an older lady, presumably his mother, who is willing him on.
At this point it becomes clear Alex has never dived off a diving board before. As he looks down at the water, just a meter below, fear manifests throughout his body. His feet turn inwards, his knees buckle, his back curls forwards. Will he jump?
Everyone is watching, and just as it looks like he’s about to go, he chickens out and turns away from the water. “Go on, you’ll be fine” his mother calls, the girls giggle, the young boy who is next inline grows impatient.
It is at this moment that I can see myself, as a younger man, in Alex’s “shoes”. I know that it’s not the fear of the water that’s putting him off. It is the fear of the unknown, the fear of failure, of acceptance or rejection that irks him. Will he make a fool of himself in front of these girls, the children, and his mother? That is what he is scared of, not the water. Sure the water, and the height, has triggered his fear, but it’s not what’s stopping him now, what’s stopping him is internal.
Alex turns back and walks to the end of the diving board, leans forward, and readopts his pose of fear.
I know what his mind is saying. It’s wishing that the world would melt away. That me, his mum, the girls, the children would just vanish, leaving just him, the board and the water. So that he could be free to finish this dirty, horrible deed in peace, any way he wants to, and in his own time.
But it is not to be. We are all still here: his mother willing, the girls giggling, the children growing impatient, me psychoanalysing.
Alex goes quiet. He seems to have accepted his fate. The fear of rejection at performing a “bad” dive is less than the fear of rejection from giving up and walking away in front of us all.
He tips forward, performs an awkward jump and splashes inelegantly into the water. Inelegant, but he’s done it! His mother and I smile; the girls laugh a little, but not in a mean way, and quickly get back to their own chatter; the children hardly register, so impatient for their own turns.
Alex resurfaces, his first words are not “awesome!” or even “yes!” but “I failed!”, and with half a smile he punches the water. Again, “I failed!”.
Alex’s mind has almost completely bifurcated at this point. One half is silently pleased, glad that he jumped at all, even if it sucked, and feeling a surge of adrenaline from the stunt. But the vocal half of his mind, that has been shaped by his 16 years in this world, and millions of years of evolution, has kicked into “rejection protection” mode. It has anticipated that his mother, the girls, the children, and I, would all be laughing at him uncontrollably, and shunning him from our lives forever more – kicking him out of the tribe. In a last ditch effort for acceptance, and to protect himself, he cries “I failed!”, as if the rejection is justified.
His cry of failure cuts me deeper than I expect. In it I see my cries of failure, my tears of frustration in years gone by at my inability to just achieve things on the first, second, tenth try and to be accepted. As if we are all born perfect divers, skateboarders, mathematicians, lovers. As if the fact that we tried at all, even if we failed, is unimportant. How ridiculous a life to lead. To think that we should be perfect on our first, second even hundredth try. What a world this would be if we perfected everything instantly. How trivial, how easy, how boring!
I know now what I should have done. What would have made Alex, myself and possibly everyone else feel much better about the world at that point. I should have congratulated him in his attempt. I should have walked over to him as he got out of the pool, stuck up my hand for a high-five, and said “good job! now go do it again”, with a big sincere smile on my face.
But I didn’t. I didn’t even think about it, but next time, I will.
Good job Alex, good job.