On Being Present with Fear

“Will I be OK?” he asked, sitting on the edge of the pool.

“Of course! Mommy and Gammy are right here!” To myself I thought, “Even on the bottom step the water would only reach your chest. Why is this such a big deal?”

We were swimming for the first time in a long time. He only came to watch his baby brother swim, but something in him still remembered the exhilaration of moving through the water. So, he consented to wear a swim suit, and then decided to put it on in advance. When we arrived, he put his feet straight in, bottom firmly planted on the side of the pool, kicking and splashing.

But now we were asking him to go all the way in.

“Will I be OK?” he asked again.

And then I saw it – the very real, very present fear that stood between him and the water. He wasn’t being obstinate, he really wasn’t sure if he’d be OK.


I thought back to the summer when he had his first slip in the pool. I wasn’t there, but I had heard the story enough times to walk through it. He was in the pool with Gammy and his brother, in water only up to his chest. But while Gammy turned around to swish the baby through the water, he slipped underneath. She turned around to find him staring up at her from the bottom of the pool – he seemed not to know how to get up!

The whole thing lasted less than half a minute, but from then on the pool was less inviting. He clung to the edge, unwilling to walk unassisted. He always wanted a floatie, even though he hadn’t used one in a while. At the time, he was so difficult to get along with in general that I chalked it all up to the ‘threenager’ stage. It had never occurred to me that his few seconds under the water would have made such an impact.

Standing in front of him at the pool, I wondered what he had experienced that day. I imagined being 3 years old, staring up at Gammy from the bottom of the pool, unable to ask for help. To us the whole thing lasted a few seconds, but to him it could have seemed an eternity.

Each time I have felt afraid, it seemed as though the moment or season would never end. But Jesus is always present with my fear. He doesn’t chide me for dipping in one foot at a time, or for using a floatie. I realized that this moment was bigger than getting my son to take swim lessons. Here was an opportunity to be present with him in a new way.


“You could just stand on the top step,” I suggested, dropping my attitude.

He put his foot down carefully, white knuckles gripping the handrail. “That’s not so deep,” he said.

Over the course of the next hour his baby brother lost interest in the pool, but he stayed, gradually getting further in. Gammy found out there were floaties like the one he used to use. With the floatie on, he was a different kid! By the end of family swim he had taken several rides around the pool with Gammy and me, and was freely playing on the bottom step with the water up to his chest.

As the whistle blew, he swam by himself the last foot from Gammy to the steps.


“You were very brave in the pool today!” I said as we showered off in the locker room.

His reply was matter-of-fact. “I was scared.”

“Do you know what brave is?”

He looked up at me with curiosity. “No?”

“Brave is when you are scared, but you give it a try anyway. So today, you were very brave.”

He thought for a moment, and then started playing hide-and-seek with his brother in the lockers.


That weekend, he started asking for long bubble baths again and stopped fighting me when I washed his hair. He rode his bike, unused since the last tumble, all the way to the park. And I learned what it means to be present with his fears the way that Jesus is present with mine.

Baby steps are fine, as long as you are brave.

© 2019 Jacqueline Tisthammer. All Rights Reserved.

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