Facing my deepest fear during my first summer at sleep away camp changed my life forever. It could change yours or your kid's life.
This is the first in a series of uplifting articles you can give as a birthday gift to friends and family who need an extra dose of inspiration to face their own fears. The second is about living life to the fullest.
You've got nothing to fear. How many times have you heard these overused Franklin D. Roosevelt words of wisdom and dismissed them outright? Probably too many times to count, if fear is your constant companion. Before facing my deepest fear, it was my go-to emotion for making any decision, big or small.
In the summer of 1971, my first time at sleep away camp, my deepest fear was, ironically enough, a fear of the deep.
At first, nobody noticed that I was terrified of deep water. This period of blissful anonymity came to a screeching halt when every camper, including me, had to take a basic swimming test in the deep end of the camp lake to qualify for any watersports.
Kids aged 9 to 12 had to take the "Four-Five" — four laps of swimming and five minutes of treading. Teens aged 13 to 16 had to take the "Twelve-Seven" — 12 laps of swimming and seven minutes of treading. The worst part for me? Both tests had to be taken in water so deep that you couldn't even see a glimpse of the bottom.
Unfortunately, the "Four-Five" was also a prerequisite for a three-night canoe trip everyone in my bunk wanted to take. All my bunkmates had passed it. Except for the truth, I gave every excuse imaginable to avoid the test and the shame I knew I would feel if anybody found me out. But to no avail.
What did me in was an "all for one and one for all" camp rule, which would force my camp counselor and, by default, my bunkmates to stay in camp with me and miss the trip — if I did not pass the "Four-Five" swimming test.
At the time, I didn't know if I was even a strong enough swimmer to do one lap, let alone four. And I had no idea if I could even tread longer than one minute. I had never gone into water over my neck to find out.
I came by my fear of the deep honestly. Three years earlier, when I was 6 years old and on vacation with my family in Banff, a resort town in Alberta, Canada, I unknowingly joined a group of boys and girls two to three years older than me taking swimming lessons.
When the swimming instructor asked us to jump into the deep end of the pool and start swimming, I jumped into the water with the rest of the kids. They swam to the surface — I didn't. I didn't know how to swim. I remained at the bottom of the pool, gasping for breath.
Looking up at everyone looking down at me, I saw my father's panic-stricken face break through the water's surface. Within a few seconds, he grabbed me by both arms and pulled me straight up to the surface. I was saved!
This incident left me with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that lasted all day and all night. Fortunately, by the next morning, I had forgotten all about this experience, like any six year old would.
Yet, every summer for the next three years, I managed to avoid deep water of any kind. That was until I was the only boy in my bunk who would not even try to pass the Four-Five swimming test, the boy who would force everyone else to forgo a canoe trip they desperately want to take.
My bunkmates had no intention of letting me sabotage their beloved canoe trip. Nor did my camp counselor. I had to at least try to pass the test. I could have told them about my fear of deep water but I wasn't about to give my bunkmates any ammunition to humiliate me the rest of the month at camp.
So I decided to take the Four-Five, after all. That old sinking feeling came rushing back the moment I made my decision — and stayed with me until a second before the swimming test itself.
A day later, on the morning of the swimming test, before anybody was awake in my bunk, my counselor brought me to the camp's waterfront to take the Four-Five.
With only the chilly, early morning dew and fog to greet me, I slowly took off my clothes and, in only a bathing suit, made my way from the beach to the dock, walking by the shallow first area of the waterfront, past the deep second area, to the bottomless third area, shaking more from nerves than the cold.
I must have looked like a fish out of water. The head of waterfront, a 20-year-old girl, took one look at my face and saw right through me. She instantly knew my dirty, little secret. "Hey, baby blue," she said, referring to my scared, blue eyes. "There's nothing to fear. I will be your swimming buddy every stroke of the way."
And that's exactly what this waterfront saint did, from start to finish. She gently helped me into the water and walked along the dock only a foot away from me as I swam my laps. She even got into the lake to tread water with me.
"Well, baby blue, you've officially passed the Four-Five," my water angel said to me when I finished treading. "Why don't you go for your Twelve-Seven? You're already in the water."
So I took the Twelve-Seven test, ending up as the only kid in camp under the age of 13 who had passed it. That morning, I learned a valuable life lesson: There is nothing to fear, once you take the plunge with a buddy by your side.