Why We Swim
4 min read
We submerge ourselves in the natural world because the natural world has a way of eliciting awe. Every morning at seven a.m. in Sydney, Australia, hundreds of swimmers gather at the city’s famous Manly Beach for an open-water swim. They swim about half a mile across a bay to Shelly Beach. Then they turn around and swim back. The locals describe it as their “wake-up call.” The swimmers wear bright pink swim caps. The squad was started by middle-aged women who wanted to gain courage from each other to swim that distance across the open water. In an essay about her daily outings with the group, the Australian writer and broadcaster Julia Baird observes the way they watch the scroll of scenery as they swim: “Most days, at some spot along the mile-long route, heads will cluster, arms pointing down under the water at enormous blue groupers, white dolphins, color-changing cuttlefish, wobbegongs. . . even tiny turtles and sea horses.” Of the gangs of dusky whale sharks that swim beneath, Baird takes note: “There’s a reason a collective term for sharks is a shiver.”
Some days the swimmers are lashed by jellyfish and currents and powerful surf. (When I was a college student studying abroad in Sydney, I swam frequently at Manly and can attest to the unpleasantness of the jellyfish.) Some days the whales come. It’s akin to a religious experience. “As your arms circle, swing, and pull along the edge of a vast ocean, your mind wanders,” Baird writes. With the drift into deeper waters comes freedom and the shift in perception that is awe. “Awe,” she continues, “experienced when you witness something astonishing, unfathomable, or greater than yourself, ventilates and expands our concept of time.” We feel light, suspended. Time slows down in the best way, and we feel that we have more of it. Psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota, led by researcher Melanie Rudd, have shown that after experiencing awe, we are more likely to help others and to be relaxed and satisfied with life. When I ask Rudd about her findings, she explains that the experience of awe heightens our focus on the present. “It captivates people’s attention with what is currently happening with them and around them,” she says. And the effects of awe are striking even beyond the moment—it makes us feel more time-rich, less impatient, more generous. It helps us to be our better selves. And who doesn’t want that?
Back on the other side of the Pacific in San Francisco, Kim and I are swimming one morning when a seagull pegs me on the shoulder, mid freestyle stroke. I nearly jump out of my swimsuit in surprise, and then I call out to Kim. “I think a bird just hit me,” I exclaim, incredulous. “It’s their swimming pool,” Kim answers, laughing. “We’re just the fools who think we can swim in it.”
An extract from Bonnie Tsui's book: 'Why We Swim'. If you'd like to read more, click here.