Thursday, September 5, 2013

Surgery, Swimming, and War: What Does Diana Nyad's historic achievement have to do with Syria?

Thanks to my wife, I watched Diana Nyad's historic achievement this weekend--swimming from Cuba to Florida--through a more engaged and passionate set of eyes than I might otherwise have done. Were it not for her I would have been fixated on the news about Syria. As reports came in of Diana's astonishing effort and ultimate achievement, the realization of her "Xtreme Dream," I would've distractedly thought, "That's cool," and then been sucked back into the prospect of missile strikes.

For several years now, my Ironman wife has pushed her physical limits through swimming, biking, and running, but her greatest love is swimming. As I write these words I am sitting in a surgery waiting room while my wife undergoes surgery on both her feet. The surgery is cutting short her season, hopefully with the result that she will be better equipped to "do her impossible" into the future ("Do your impossible" are the words that frame her Ironman tattoo). But it means that she will not be participating in Oklahoma City's Redman triathlon later this month, as originally planned.

But she told me the other day that the more painful loss is the "Tall Chief Open Water Challenge," a three-mile swim she would otherwise have been doing in a couple of weeks. It's become a family tradition to drive out to the scenic venue of this swim, to cheer her on, to walk along the lakefront and environs during the hour-and-a-half that she is in the water.

I would drown, but at the end of a three mile swim she seems refreshed, enlivened. And so, as Diana Nyad pursued her dream of self-transcendence, of doing her impossible, my wife lay awake through the night, checking on her progress, obsessively following each update and becoming increasingly excited as it began to seem as if this impossible dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, after multiple failed attempts, would actually become a reality.

I was swept up in the enthusiasm, and waited impatiently through CNN reports about Syria for the next Diana Nyad update.

But I didn't ignore the reports about Syria. My native obsession with issues of violence and nonviolence ensured that I listened to every report. I was caught in the contrasting pull of opposites: the hope of dreams fulfilled, the horror of civil war.

And then Diana Nyad came ashore in Key West, after a swim in which the stinging box jellyfish that had defeated her before were almost miraculously absent. She had done her impossible--what many had said cold not be done. Much hinged on luck: The obstacles she'd have to cross involved more than her own endurance and a body of water, but the threat of storms and poisonous sea creatures and shifting currents. She succeeded because she kept trying until, on one miraculous effort, the various threats eased away enough for determination and training and raw grit to prevail.

They say that a positive resolution to the Syrian civil war--or even a ceasefire--is impossible. And clearly the obstacles are enormous. In efforts to broker something meaningful end to violence, defeat is more likely than success.

In the face of that sort of challenge, the international community and world leaders can be realistic. They can walk away. They can make military gestures whose primary purpose is not to achieve any substantive improvement in the terrible plight of the Syrian people, but to be able to say to ourselves and the world that we did something when Syria's dictator violated one of the few constraints on war that the world has mostly managed to observe since World War I.

I suppose the Diana Nyad might have taken a boat into the waters between Cuba and Florida and started hunting down box jellyfish and stabbed them with a harpoon. It wouldn't have accomplished anything. It wouldn't have brought her any closer to her dream. And I doubt the jellyfish would have paid any attention to the message. But maybe it would have made her feel a little better in her defeat.

Violence is what we resort to when we've been defeated. It is not a means to victory. It is an acknowledgement of defeat. To resort to violence is to admit that we lack the creativity, the wisdom, the skill, the training, the courage, to maneuver the complex and often impossible-seeming dynamics of human conflicts. To resort to violence is to give up on integrative solutions that do the most to meet the real human needs of everyone involved. We fall back on a lesser dream.

Sometimes, acknowledging defeat (in one way or another) may be better than endlessly beating ourselves against insurmountable obstacles. But it is easy to give up to soon. Sometimes a dogged commitment to doing the impossible comes in that moment when obstacles miraculously ease away, and the impossible becomes not only possible, but real.

That's the message of Diana Nyad's accomplishment. And it isn't irrelevant with respect to the seemingly hopeless situation that prevails in Syria, and our apparent lack of meaningful options that can do real good.

Soon my wife will be out of surgery and she will begin the road to recovery. Over the next weeks she will be in a wheelchair, and ordinary tasks will seem impossible. The eventual return to training, and to the the level of physical fitness required to participate in the inaugural Boulder Ironman next August, which my wife is signed up to race, may seem at moments like an impossible dream.

But my wife has "Do your impossible" tattooed on her leg. And so I know that she will face those challenges, push ahead, and accomplish miracles.

After all, she has Diana Nyad for a role model. Can we, the people of the world wrestling with the Syrian quagmire, say the same? If we can, then I have hope.

1 comment:

  1. I fail to understand why people are so willing to replace a cruel dictator by a much more gruesome Islamist theocracy, in the first place.

    This is maybe one form of the Dick Cheney's syndrome.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.
    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son