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|David L. Weatherford|
|In my lifetime, I have endured my share of hardship. Every now and then, someone will ask me how I managed to persevere in those difficult periods, how I found the strength to push on and meet the challenge of suffering. In thinking about that, I've come to think of myself as a swimmer.
Life has on occasion picked me up and plunked me down in the darkest part of the deep blue sea. I suddenly found myself sinking into the depths, plummeting so far down that I imagined I would never again walk with the living. And for a while I ranted and railed against everything - - the sun that kept shining as if all was still right with the world, all those folks going on merrily while I was struggling, and Lady Luck or God or whoever was calling the shots that put me in my current predicament. At some point in the midst of my futile crying and whining, I noticed the corpses of the others who had similarly been dropped into this bottomless ocean of agony. No doubt, they had spent some time bemoaning this awful fate, fought for a while, then gave up and drowned in the merciless waters of fear, hopelessness, and self pity. It was then I determined that I could not allow myself to sink any further lest I become mired in this unyielding muck of misery. Instead I chose to utilize that internal, self-righting compass that we each can call on in those overwhelming situations where we feel frightened and alone.
And somehow I struggled to the surface. Of course, making the decision to fight, to endure the pain, to turn fear and anger toward a goal of survival, is only the first part of the long journey back. After emerging from the abyss, I still could not see the shore - the shore on which I had skipped happily in the sand, carefree and with reckless abandon as if life truly was a beach, naively believing that drowning in anguish was a fate that only happened to others, perhaps because of their mistakes, misdeeds, or plain old rotten luck. Now, for whatever reason, I was one of them, and that sunny shore seemed a hundred miles away. But somehow, I reached down inside myself and found a small reserve of strength with which to make a swimstroke. With that miniscule, but powerful moment of forward movement, I knew I was on my way back, because I followed that stroke with a second, third, fourth, and so on. And I was buoyed by one undeniable fact - that with each stroke, I was a tiny bit closer to the shore to which I longed to return, and a tiny bit further from the grim point at which my journey of survival had begun.
Fortunately, I never felt alone during this difficult endeavor. I could hear family and friends exhorting me, encouraging me, making the waves of the ocean seem a little less formidable and the shore gradually visible. But more than that, I could hear a Voice deep within me, telling me to go on, go on, go on - push, push, push - harder, harder,harder. It was not a Voice I remembered hearing before, or perhaps, I had just never listened. Oh, but I could hear the Voice now - now when everything was on the line, when it was time to choose either to yield to the suffering and be swallowed by this ocean of a million tears, or to swim hard and desperately for life, dear, sweet precious life. And when the pain and fear seemed most intolerable, it was then that the Voice was strongest, speaking to me with a calming assurance, letting me know that whether I am skipping on the shore, or sinking into the sea, I am never alone, not for a minute am I ever alone.
Though time passed slowly, I found myself moving steadily back to shore, not necessarily focusing on the shore itself so much as just willing each stroke singularly, for no greater goal than to succeed for another moment, finding worth in the positive experience of trying, striving, willing myself to just be moving, surviving inch by inch, one minute to the next. And perhaps strangest of all, I found that I did not get tired with each successive stroke, but oddly, I got stronger. Pushing myself against the waves of sorrow strengthened my arms with courage and my legs with hope. Each stroke was more powerful and sure than the previous one, so that by the time I could see the land of the living, I knew I would make it back.
And I knew something more. I realized I would never walk on that shore as quite the same man, that I would be different somehow. And so it was, when I reached the sandy shore and walked again in the sunshine, I was more than I had been before my terrible ordeal. In the course of my fight for life, I discovered within myself an incredible will to live that is the match of the awesome sea itself. I was now stronger and more confident, yet at the same time, gentler and calmer like the mighty ocean when it laps softly against the shore. For I had seen the darkest, deepest part of the sea of suffering and I had survived.
Now I live with the serene peace of knowing, if ever I find myself awash in those murky waters of misfortune and misery, I am a swimmer, and I will make my way back, one stroke at a time, finding purpose in the successive minute goals of willing myself to just be for a moment more, and a moment more, and so on. And I know that when those currents of self doubt threaten to pull me back under, the Voice will be there, reminding me there is value and meaning in the struggle itself and that the sweet gift of life is worth whatever we must endure, no matter how arduous or painful.
I realize now that there can be no shore if there is no ocean, no living without suffering. Thus, at some point in our lives, each of us will either sink or swim when we find ourselves in the watery depths of despair. And though I dread the sea, I do not fear it. I know now that I am a swimmer. And I am at peace, not only with the land of love and laughter, but too, with the sea of struggle and survival.
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