Monday, March 28, 2011

Coming Up for Air

My recent reading adventures have reminded me of an experience in swimming lessons long, long ago. We were in the deep diving pool, and the instructor kept tossing a hard rubber block into the water and telling one of us to dive down and retrieve it. I watched other boys bring up the block, so I could see it was a doable task. But when my turn came, I encountered some problems. I had probably never gone six feet under before, and I found out that becomes harder at about that depth to keep going father down. But I expelled some air as I had been taught, and I went farther. I certainly had never gone down ten feet before, and the painful pressure on my ears surprised me. But a little facial stretch and a quick second to build some courage brought new resolve, and I kept going. Then the last two feet almost stopped me. I reached for the block only to find it was farther away than it looked. Darned refraction! I also started wondering whether I had the air to make it back up from eleven feet, let alone twelve. And my ears hurt, very badly. But the other boys had done it, so I pushed out more air and gave one more kick and grabbed the rubber block.

No one told me how heavy it was! I relaxed and pointed my body upwards, but I went nowhere. I gave a kick and moved a bit, and then tried using my hands -- aggh, my one free hand -- and moved a bit faster. The pain moved from my ears to my lungs as I rose, and I began to have serious doubts that I would make it to the top. At some point, all thoughts and doubts disappeared, and my body just started doing what it had to do to survive. I could see the wavy surface above me but had no idea how far away it was. It looked like I had three more feet to go, then five, then two, then ten.

Then suddenly things were different. I heard the world again and quit going up. Without waiting for my mind to think it through, my mouth opened up and sucked in air as fast as possible. Instantly I knew what to do again, how to move, how to reach the side of the pool. I had the use of both hands again. Where was the rubber block? Did I drop it? Did the instructor take it? Was it just suddenly much lighter than it seemed twelve feet of water pressure ago? I don't know. I only know that I didn't have to go down again.

I struggled more with Hegel over the last two weeks than I thought I would, and the experience felt very much like that dive. It became harder and harder, and my mind started thinking that I might not be able to make it through another twenty pages without collapsing into idiocy. But at the beginning of the year, knowing I would probably have some difficulties with this dense philosophy, even if I didn't know their extent, I scheduled Aquinas after Hegel, because reading Aquinas often feels like breathing sweet, precious oxygen into burning lungs. He's just so orderly and sensible and so very much in love with God.

I remember distinctly a sensation of utter mystification the first time I tried reading a page of the Summa Theologica. I was in my twenties, and I hadn't read any Aristotle. Fifteen years later, with a grounding in "The Philosopher's" system, Aquinas's great work is not just easy to read but encouraging and inspiring. "Inspiration" by its roots refers to the intake of breath (whether one's own or God's), so the memory of the swimming lesson comes naturally. Last week I wasn't sure I could see the surface, but today the weight is gone and forgotten, and I'm breathing with joy.

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