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Healing in the Water

I stood over the water, toes curled tightly around the ledge, and adjusted my goggles again – an old nervous tick of mine. A lone swimmer turned in the next lane, splashing water over my bare feet. I recoiled. It was cold – but I suppose that’s been my complaint about pools for seventeen years. My mom tells me that I was terrified of water as a child, so she enrolled me in swim lessons to help me overcome that fear. Needless to say, I did. I swam nearly every day from the time I was five until I was twenty-two. Seventeen years. It was probably my first love, but it was also my escape from the world. The way the water washed over my skin and swallowed me in silence seemed to cleanse everything out of my mind except the steady rhythm of my heart pacing with the cadence of each stroke. In the water, I felt calm. I felt powerful. I felt joy. I felt belonging and courage. It was more than a sport to me; it was a way of life. In many ways, I suppose it was my life.

There were obstacles and disappointments along the way. I switched teams and struggled to make friends sometimes. I didn’t become the superstar I wanted to be. I endured injuries and tragedies that threatened to end my career, but I persevered. I fought hard for my first love, and it carried me to heights I never thought I’d reach. I went on to swim for my alma mater, but I didn’t finish my career. After my junior year I left my position as captain, leaving a team I loved, walking away from the sport entirely to escape the tyranny that crushed the love beneath it. The abuses and harshness of where swimming had led me were damaging enough, but for me, it was fleeing my first love that wounded me the deepest. I didn’t swim for four years. I couldn’t. It was too painful.

But here I stood four years later, twisting my goggles in my hands on the ledge of a collegiate swimming pool. It felt haunting to stand on the ledge I’d balanced the balls of my feet on thousands of times before. It wasn’t foreign, it just wasn’t the same; something had shifted. Still apprehensive, I dove into its depths. The same cool water rushed over my skin as I sliced through its surface. I wasn’t as good as I once was; my breathing was heavy and my technique was sloppy, but there was still a familiar surge of joy as my feet hit the wall. No – it was not the same. But there was no pain anymore, no ache. After thirty minutes, I pulled myself out the water, albeit with more effort than I was used to, and wiped my face off with a towel. Removing my swimming cap, I was not intoxicated by the endorphins coursing through my veins, but I was content as I left the pool that day, like waking from a Sunday afternoon nap. I never went back, but I didn’t need to. The healed don’t go back anyway – they go on.

In some ways healing feels so ethereal it eludes almost all practicality to the grieved and hurting, but it is still something we always promise the wounded to receive, though we have no power to actually grant it. Healing cannot be wielded, grasped, contorted, melded, or constructed. And yet, she comes. I cannot deny, though I did not see her in my life those four years after leaving the water, that healing had come and gone by the time my toes had next curled over that ledge. I was not the same person. Or maybe swimming was the thing that had changed to me. I don’t know. I have no idea how it happened, but I can promise you that it did. While I wandered in the wasteland, filling the hole that leaked dry with every step I took, something was at work in the shadows – Someone.

Some say healing comes on the wings of time alone, like a conductor rolling into your station of pain, finally whisking you off into wholeness again. There is nothing to do but wait. However, I can tell you time alone does not heal wounds any more than band aids do; it merely covers them. But still something brings healing from outside of myself. I hear her echo, but never her voice. I see her fingerprints, but never her hands. I feel the work she has done, but I never felt her working, no matter how hard I searched for her presence in the midst of my pain. I wonder if that’s because she’s not really meant to be found. And though her ways are still a mystery to me, I know it must be hard work to heal a soul; that only the One who wields her could do such work. He has never once expected us to mend our own souls. For who knows how to mend what they did not make?

Yet we try. We try to repair the hole in us again with what was once there, but whatever we fill it with seeps through its cracks. We are more broken than we thought. And as we resign ourselves to its irreversible loss, nothing can describe the emptiness that follows in its wake. We are steeped in a silence so thick that even God himself seems aloof. You return to that hollow place, knowing you won’t find what you are looking for, yet your fingers cannot resist tracing its edges, drawing boundaries in the dust of sacred nothingness. You feel repulsed by it, and yet you are compelled to return everyday, until someone sweeps up the dust, destroying the only thing left to remind you of what was. Now in its absence there is a freedom, a horrible freedom to do anything but what you wanted. You feel that ache, that lostness – longing for what once grounded you in who you were, but you train your eyes to look forward, to settle in the reality that what was is gone. The wound hardens. We often abandon our belief in healing here. We question if God will ever heal us. But maybe what we think healing is, is not healing at all.

I wonder if that wandering, that lostness and purposelessness, is actually Him leading us into rest. He pulls us into the shepherd’s fields, and though we often refuse him, insists we desist our striving and simply graze. But it feels useless, it feels powerless, it feels humiliating. In some ways, I suppose it is, depending on how we look at it. But what we measure that by is through what we have lost. God is after what makes us whole. I have learned from my Shepherd in the “stagnant pastures” that I know very little about what makes me whole. And in my ignorance, resting in doing nothing at all might be the best thing that I can do.  

He leads the broken to rest, but at other times he challenges us to war. I have found these battles to normally occur after spending time in the pasture, where he calls us to fight in our weakness. What He calls us to fight is as unique as we are and the holes in our hearts. It seems to wound us deeper at times, to haunt us or condemn us or batter us – and I do not understand it, other than as I look back, it looks less like a beating and more like an excavation. We discover skeletons and fossils, the idols and wounds that lie hidden beneath what we lost, and we are forced to face them and remove them as the dimensions of the hole only seem to grow.

And then, sometimes without warning, He gives us what seem like meaningless gifts of distraction. Things we often don’t appreciate – different friends, a new city, fun hobbies, free time, different interests. Again, the ways and means of these gifts are mysterious to me, but in these seasons I have been pushed into areas that seem random, yet have fed me in some unique way. Sometimes it coincides with the pasture or the battle, and sometimes it is its own season altogether, but it always comes. And more often for me, it’s in distraction that I begin to spend less time remembering the hole. It becomes less frequent in my conversations, in my prayers, in my thoughts. It’s not that I forget that there’s a crater in my soul, but it is not the center of my life anymore. A shift begins to occur from within. I don’t know how long these seasons are, because they flow within the natural rhythms of our struggles – in our exhaustion we return to the pasture, in our anger and soul-searching we fight, in our wanderings we are distracted. Yet the Spirit breathes in tandem with our own breath; as we breathe out the groans of sin and death, He breathes into us the sighs of life and healing.

And then, one day – maybe – when He has done all He’s needed to redeem that lost part of you, you’ll return to the grave, the office, the house, or whatever monument of loss remains. You will stand before it, still allowing it to hold the affections of your heart, to elicit the emotions you used to feel, but when you are done gazing at it, you will walk away, free of its magnetism, free to come and go as you please. For some this is just a returning to the memory, for others its a physical returning to the thing itself, like a pool.

And as I left my monument, in awe and wonder I turned to retrace the landscape of my soul, and awestruck, I began to see the work of healing all around me. I returned to where I left the hole, for it was nowhere near the monument I had just stood by, and instead found a well, full of the clearest water I had ever seen, yet its depths seemed unsearchable. It appeared to be moving and dancing as if every ounce of it swam with life. It’s then that I realized – I have seen this well before. I’ve walked by this well and drunk from it so many times since I had left the hole that I couldn’t bear to see. Others have brought me water from this well; Jesus and I have sat by this well. Healing didn’t put me back together; she put more of my God and Redeemer in my emptiness. In my grieving, I had unknowingly drunk from the sufficiency of who He is. In my frustration and hurt, I had been ministered to by His healing waters in ways I will never understand, so that I might experience the freedom that comes from being whole in Christ alone. Healing, or at least the healing that God gives to those who look to Him for it, is not so much a fixing of what was, but transforming into the unshakeable reality of what will be.

I can be afflicted in every way but – through healing– not crushed
I can be perplexed but – through healing – not driven to despair
I can be persecuted but – through healing– not forsaken
I can be struck down but – through healing – not destroyed

He takes the emptiness of our losses, our aches, our despair, and he fixes it on Himself. Sometimes that restores us to what was lost. Sometimes it does not. But I think true healing of the soul is done after the loss is removed from the center. It even becomes eclipsed when we look into the well that was our emptiness and instead see the reflection of His glory all over us. Even in the pain, even in the loss, He is etched into every detail of who we are. He wants His name proclaimed over every inch of our story, over every inch of our lives. Do not mistake me, those monuments of loss and pain will not be forgotten, but they will not shackle you when healing is done with you. You will be able to sit before it and reminisce in a strange concoction of joy and sorrow, and then walk away, just as free as you were before you came, sipping from the wells He has filled in you as you pass them by. He excavates our souls as our Servant, filling us with Himself as our King.

I stood on the edge of the sidewalk, whitened fingers clutching tightly around my bag as my eyes darted up and down the street. I quickly re-tucked my hair behind my ear – an old nervous habit of mine. A lone car passed by us, splashing the remnants of winter rain onto our feet. I recoiled, but a reassuring hand pressed against my arm and led me across the street. As the hand moved from my back to my car door, I glanced back at the place my heart could not yet enter. It was still too painful. The lump in my throat grew into a fissure throughout my whole chest, releasing angry tears that had been welling up from within. When was everything going to be okay? Why was I still so hurt? I leaned my head back against the passenger’s chair, and somewhere deep within the recesses of my soul, I absentmindedly dipped my cup into a well, took a swig and continued on. Lost in my hurt, broken in my pain, I didn’t even see the shadow that knelt by a nearby hole, pouring water into its depths. Her eyes were on me, though I’d probably never see her. But she didn’t care. Once she was done, I would see Him in place of the hole. And that’s exactly what Healing wants.     

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