I’m on sabbatical and I’ve taken up swimming. I know how to swim, but I’ve never done lap swimming, official swimming. I knew this would be a challenge for me, and I took it on philosophically and Biblically—the best ways I know. Phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty says: “true philosophy consists in relearning to look at the world.”1 God says in Isaiah: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!”2 This has given me some insight into teaching. I found a vacant closet on the pool deck to use as a sabbatical office. From there I smell the chlorine, hear the water lapping, and feel the warmth of the indoor pool climate. Merleau-Ponty says that “the world is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and my explicit perceptions.”3 If I am to become a swimmer, I have to inhabit a swimmer’s milieu.
Our campus pool is older than I am. Languished cream tiles shape the basin with offsetting mauve lane medians. Brown bricks run across the floor and up the walls like a giant, faded stain. The pool is more Sinai wilderness than Promised Land.
Phenomenologically, a pool can be a scary place. It can also be inviting. I experience this paradox on my first day swimming laps. Two men from our swim team are training in the middle lanes. Swim caps, lycra suits, muscled bodies, state-of-the-art goggles, equipment bags. These men are natural in this habitat. They move effortlessly through the water, each stroke infused with inertia and efficiency. Swimmers swimming as if they’ve always already swam. I enter with baggy board shorts, a soft midsection, and a chest hair sweater. Merleau-Ponty: “The body is the vehicle of being in the world, and having a body is … to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them.”4 God encourages us in Isaiah: “Fear not, for I am with you.”5
I wonder how my students feel on the first day of my general education class on Ancient Greece. Some enter naturally. They’ve read Homer. They know Aristotle’s First Principles. Other students enter cautiously, wearing the intellectual equivalent of baggy board shorts and a soft midsection.
I barely finish 50 meters of freestyle—that’s down and back in our pool. Gasping for air, my lungs are on fire and I feel as heavy as a brimstone.6 I’ve never needed air so badly in my life. Once I catch my breath, I swim 50 meters of breaststroke. That’s much easier. It feels like cheating but it’s something I can complete without risking asphyxiation. I’m willing to make that Faustian bargain.
Prompt: Write a short reflection on the Greek leadership crisis. “In the Iliad, a famous book written by Homer—who is an Ancient Greek—about the Trojan War, the king of the Greek army is Agamemnon, and Achilles is his best soldier.” The student is pandering, filling space, and with no idea what to write. In the absence of knowledge or context, students often default to truisms and oversimplifications to fill space, breaststroke.
Five days of swimming, a weekend break, and the next day I swim 100 meters without stopping. I get light-headed. I’ve never experienced oxygen deprivation like this before. I swim about 400 meters each day, more and more of it is freestyle. Down and back. Stop for a minute or two to avoid respiratory arrest. Repeat. I’m exhausted.
A squatty, speedo-ed retiree 30 years my elder freestyles in the lane next to me. He’s not a natural swimmer. I watch him. His form doesn’t look as comfortable as the two swimmers last week. I start swimming. He passes me. I stroke and kick harder, trying to keep up. He pulls away. “How is he…?” “Why can’t I…?” For Merleau-Ponty, learning occurs when one tries to achieve maximal grip on the world.7 I’m trying, but this world is slippery.
“I’m not a good writer.” The student just received a low grade on an assignment. “My friends in the class get good scores and I don’t. I’ve never been a good writer. I understand the content, but I’m not used to writing in the humanities. What do I need to do?”
Swimming laps shouldn’t be this difficult. I’m in shape. I play sports. I’m healthy. When I finish each day, my lungs feel like they’ve been stretched, slapped, wrung, and abused. When I stroke faster, my muscles fatigue too quickly. When I stroke slower, my lungs can’t keep up because my face is in the water for too long. Neither of these options is sustainable. I must be missing something. But what? I have no idea.
I begin class with a question: Does anyone have any questions about the Aristotle reading? I wait in awkward silence. If they read, they should have questions. I fear that they don’t even know what to ask.
I work as hard as I can the next couple of weeks but without much progress. At my son’s soccer game, other parents ask what I’m doing on my sabbatical. I talk about swimming and my struggles.8 One mom—a novice swimmer—mentions that I should take a breath every other stroke. That’s what she does. This frustrates me. She must think I’m completely incompetent. I know when to breathe. I just lose my breath too quickly. She doesn’t understand. Or maybe I’m not describing it right. I don’t know.
I wonder how many times students have read my comments on their papers and been frustrated. “He doesn’t understand. Or maybe I’m not describing it right. I don’t know.”
A week later, I run into a colleague who knows me well, our PE program director. She taught swimming for years. She swims every morning. Its meditative, she’s told me. It’s her alone time with God. This is exactly what I want from swimming. “You’re probably not exhaling when your face is underwater,” she tells me. “Huh,” I respond, curious. “If you hold your breath when you’re underwater, your lungs expand. Aerobically, this isn’t sustainable.”
Nothing has ever made more sense. That’s definitely it!
I rush to the pool the next morning and dive in. Face out of the water: inhale; face underwater: exhale; inhale; exhale. I’m down and back without the normal screaming from my lungs. I don’t need to stop. I don’t want to. I want to keep going. God says in Isaiah: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”9 Yes! This is it! This is the feeling I’ve been hoping for all along. I can finally swim laps without needing to stop. I do 6 laps continuously, a personal best. And I feel … normal. I keep going. 10 laps. 20. I think I can swim forever, and I want to. Those who hope in the Lord will soar … through water like dolphins; they will swim and not grow weary; they will freestyle and not faint.10 Or something like that.
One dedicated but previously frustrated student writes: “I take off my nose ring when I visit my Grandma, disguising myself as the good girl she thinks I am. Odysseus does the same thing. It isn’t sadistic; it’s for a purpose. Now I understand my inauthenticity in a new way.” Yes, that’s it, the intellectual equivalent of exhaling underwater.
I stop at 32 consecutive laps. That’s 800 meters—eight times farther than I’ve ever been able to swim. I could keep going but the swim team invades the pool deck for practice. I’m disappointed that I have to stop. That 800 meters took me 30 minutes. The world record is around 7 minutes 30 seconds. I did one lap for every four that Katie Ledecky does. I don’t care. I figured it out. I can swim laps! “Come to the waters!”11 says the Lord.
“If I’m Hector’s wife, I don’t want to have to tell him to stay with me rather than fight. I want him to WANT to stay with me. I think this is why my mom is sad when my dad leaves on golf trips with his friends.” Yes, that’s it. Seeing the world anew, doing a new thing.
I swim 40 laps the next day and 50 after that. I could swim all day long. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. I barely have to think about it anymore. My mind can wander. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.”12
A cross-country runner and Goldwater Scholar writes: “The good life for me is not just running, it’s miles 3-5 of a 6-miler with my brother.” Intrinsic motivation, homeostasis, satisfaction, friendship, coherence. Aristotle would be proud. Even this star student is seeing things new by the end of the semester.
Merleau-Ponty: “A movement is learned when the body has understood it, that is, when it has incorporated it into its ‘world’.”13 More generally, learning occurs when the student has internalized it and incorporated it into their world. My world is different than before I knew to exhale when underwater. I’m a swimmer now. I swim. My life has expanded. “See, I am doing a new thing!” My world includes swimming distances that I never thought possible. I can and I do, with Isaiah and Merleau-Ponty as my inhale and exhale.
Even so, I was unable to do this new thing without the help of someone who knew me well, understood my message14 and my sorrow.15 For all the content in my class, its only then that my students do a new thing, seeing the world anew.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings, ed. by Thomas Baldwin (Routledge: London, 2004), p. 77.
- Isaiah 43:18-19
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings, ed. by Thomas Baldwin (Routledge: London, 2004), p. 67.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings, ed. by Thomas Baldwin (Routledge: London, 2004), p. 93.
- Isaiah 41:10
- I know, I know. A brimstone isn’t actually a stone. But the Biblical allusion is too obvious. It feels like hell.
- Mia Burnett, “Response through the Intentional Arc: Merleau-Ponty, Dreyfus and Second Language Acquisition,” in Res Cogitans, Vol 10: 1 (2019), 1-12.
- Nota Bene: I’m also doing research on my sabbatical
- Isaiah 43:19
- A water(ed down) translation of Isaiah 40:31
- Isaiah 55:1
- Isaiah 43:18
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Basic Writings, ed. by Thomas Baldwin (Routledge: London, 2004), p. 123.
- Isaiah 53:1
- Isaiah 53:4