What does it mean when you say you “can’t” do something? Sometimes it is literal – I literally can’t do a handstand. But often it is more subtle, meant to impress a sort of finality despite the lack of a literal barrier, an underhanded implication that we would, under other circumstances, but for reasons we wish to assert are beyond our control, we can’t.
As for me, right now, I can’t swim.
Except I can swim. Adeptly. Swimming isn’t like running, a sport anyone can take up at anytime via purchase of a pair of running shoes and a personal commitment. No-one has to to teach you how to run. But you have to be taught how to swim, even if the teacher is yourself. Swimming with any kind of efficiency generally requires a teacher other than yourself, along with adoption of a small parcel of other skills like remaining horizontally afloat and learning to breathe while moving through water. There’s a hump to be gotten over for starting regular swimming, a higher boost of activation energy to go from 0 to 1 than there is for running. I like that about swimming, even though I am able to through no personal perseverance of my own, and would do it whether or not that were the case.
Like me, many adult swimmers learned to swim when they were kids, something deemed important by their parents, such as learning to ride a bike or drive a manual transmission – not absolutely necessary for survival, but a useful skill nonetheless. Some tenacious individuals took it up as adults for their health or because they simply wanted to.
I know there was a time in my life when I couldn’t swim, when I was afraid to put my head under the water, but I don’t really remember it. For all I know, I love to swim, and always have. I love the water and I love being in the water. As ungraceful as I am on land, my frequent forgetting of where my hands and feet are, my persistent inability to improve my hand-eye coordination, none of that matters in the water. In the water, I am graceful, powerful, knowledgeable. I’ll swim just about anywhere. The ocean is my preference but I’ll take whatever you’ve got, as long as someone says it’s safe (and perhaps even if someone says it’s not).
But every time I swim, now, my shoulder pain rockets from a 3 to a 9 within 48 hours. The cause-and-effect pattern has been established. So right now, I can’t swim.
I had said I would do whatever it took to keep from being in that kind of pain again. And I hate all the drugs, the time and money wasted on pointless physical therapy, the injections, the roller coaster of hope and disappointment. I mean it when I declare I’d do anything to get a pass from that horror show.
But what if it means I can’t swim?
I mean, that’s the logical end to this thought exercise, isn’t it? What do I want? To not be in pain. What causes my pain? Swimming. Well, it seems pretty simple, doesn’t it?
But I love to swim. Am I willing to never swim again in order to not be in pain? How is it that I’ve found myself in this place, where I have to sacrifice a cherished activity, something generally considered good for one’s health, in order to be well? I don’t want to say I can’t swim. I don’t want to not be able to swim. But I have this fear, and it’s strong, about swimming, and about pain.
I mean, I can swim, if I want to deal with debilitating pain for several days afterward. I suppose I should try to arrange for some diagnostics to “catch” whatever the swimming is doing in the act – set up an MRI or something and then do a swim workout the day before and see what it sees – if it sees anything. Which it probably won’t. But maybe I should ask. Because it’s the only hope I have now, I suppose, of figuring out why it is that I shouldn’t – can’t – swim.
Because right now I can’t. I can’t swim. I am unable to, not because I don’t know how, not because I wouldn’t rather, but because of other circumstances which prevent it, without which I’d probably be in the pool right this very second.
So, I can’t.