The Universal Duck Paddle

2014 is three days old, and we are seeing the traditional flurry of resolution-making, goal-setting, and aspirational thinking that is customary for this time of year. Some dive fully into the energy that is shared here, making lists of things to do, see, accomplish and be in the year ahead. Others groan, silently or otherwise, at the high hopes shared. Whatever your stance on the matter, tis the season!

For my part, I have no real specific resolutions this year, or even any one word to fulfill for the year. But as we move from the stage of excitement and ideation, to the one of fulfillment, I want to share a conversation I’ve had over the past few days.

Fun fact about me: I notoriously struggle to maintain relationships with exes after our time together ends. Some people are able to cultivate friendships after these relationships end; I am rarely able to do this. Whether it’s because I’m too hurt to make a sincere effort, or am genuinely concerned that the process will just bring up old feelings, it’s something I’ve rarely done well.

So I was surprised to find myself in conversation with a former boyfriend of several years ago over the holiday break. The exact details of the conversation aren’t important to this discussion, but a key moment that stuck with me was him saying “You seem like you have your s*** together.” 

How often do we think this of one another? Chris Conzen wrote about this extremely eloquently a few days ago, as we rushed headlong into 2014. Conversations we have with friends and family over the holidays, the moments that we share with our phones and computers, the details we share with people: they’re composed, they’re curated, they’re designed to display a version of ourselves with, for lack of a more graceful way to put it, our s*** together.

But I’m reminded of the analogy of the swimming duck. Ducks appear to glide effortlessly over the water they inhabit, skimming the surface with nary a splash visible to the naked eye. However, a peek beneath the surface would reveal a flurry of activity. Flailing, churning, paddling for dear life to just stay afloat. We don’t see it, we just think — even with full knowledge of what is going on underneath — that there’s a lot of grace and composure there. And it needs to be said: humans are the same.

I don’t say this as a plea to be more publicly vulnerable, and I certainly don’t say it as a call for people to check what they post online. This could be perceived as either, and I want to make it clear that today, that’s not the argument I’m making. I say it simply as a reminder: we are all flailing, churning, and paddling for dear life to stay afloat. Every single one of us. The pattern of the strokes may vary widely from person to person, but we’re all doing it. Anyone who says they aren’t is lying to you, and anyone who truly believes they aren’t, is lying to him or herself.

As you move through the year, and have that very human instinct to belittle your own experience in comparison to someone’s seemingly easier/better/stronger circumstances, remember the strokes you’re taking to get through. Acknowledge that the person in front of you is doing the same. And most importantly: if the journey through the water you’re seeing is visibly rough, reach out and help that person stay afloat.

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