Many years ago, I visited a small sleepy town called Kampot, on the coast of Cambodia.
I was there for three days, and I used that time to think about the upcoming new year, and what goals I wanted to achieve.
I found the country’s atmosphere to be conducive to deep thinking and reflection. The fact that one wakes up at 5.30 with the natural sounds of the morning and the sun, the fact that there are no background noises of cars, construction work, or anything, come to think of it.
I stayed in this beautiful place, Greenhouse, which is outside of Kampot, and is right on the river at the beginning of Bokor national park, which is a near-perfect setting.
I’ve never been comfortable swimming in lakes or rivers or venturing too far out at sea. I always think about the various things that could happen, and I don’t like the feeling that there might be twenty meters of water underneath me, and I don’t know what is down there.
I had been to Kampot before, and I had swam in the river, but I kept quite close to the bank, and I was also swimming with other people, and during the middle of the day, so things didn’t feel too bad.
So I was quite amazed when during this short holiday I swam across to the other side of the river, a distance of 150 to 200 meters, both early in the morning by myself, when there was no one else around, and also in the pitch black night, with a friend.
Now, objectively speaking, very little can happen while swimming across this river. There are no dangerous animals, the river is very calm, and the distance to the other side is something I can comfortably swim without any problems.
So the real problem was in my mind.
As I stood for fifteen minutes looking at the river as the sun was rising, I just couldn’t get myself to jump in and swim to the other side, until I overcame this mental block.
The core issue, I found, is that I am afraid to die. I instantly felt quite disappointed. Here I am, completely blocked, when I am always thinking, reading, writing about philosophical matters and trying to improve my life.
Here is the proof that I’m a fraud, that none of this training to be in control of myself is working.
Then I jumped in.
In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.Yogi Berra
What I found incredibly interesting is how much I managed to learn by applying what I have been learning in the past few years to something as simple as swimming across a river.
In twenty minutes of action, I had the equivalent of several weeks of reflection and studying. The test took place at the point where I was exactly in the middle of a river in a third-world country, with no one around to see me.
That’s when I knew that I had been making progress.
Of course, without my prior reflection and study of what is under our control, I would probably never have jumped in and swam across, so there is a huge amount of value in reflection, but only if it leads us to take action, to apply philosophy to our lives.
Otherwise, we run the risk of being the equivalent of armchair generals, full of theory but without real-life experience of putting this theory into practice.
This idea of practical philosophy is embedded in many ancient Greek philosophies. That’s because many of the key figures who helped shape modern Western culture lived their lives in unstable political times, where tough action was often necessary.
Well, it may be all right in practice, but it will never work in theory.Warren Buffett
The idea that we should not be afraid to die is a strong one, but even a short amount of study on this topic will lead anyone to the conclusion that it is correct. By not being afraid to die, we free ourselves to live. Death is part of the natural order of things, as so cannot be bad per se.
Sure, you might argue that someone dying in the prime of their life is a terrible thing, but then who ever claimed that everyone should live until they are one hundred?
To achieve the aim of Stoicism, a life of tranquillity, we must be able to live in accordance with nature. The world as it is now is not a perfect place and is unlikely ever to become one.
You will be insulted by other people, you won’t get everything you want, you’ll get sick, you’ll have a failure, and one day, you will die.
And you know what? That’s fine.
Again, this is another example of how taking the time to reflect on simple things in life, such as taking a cold shower, watching TV at four in the afternoon, or crossing a river, can lead us to insights into our own lives.
Six months after this first river crossing, I went back to the river, and this time, I swam across it at night time by myself, which took things to a completely different level.
Again, I objectively knew that there weren’t too many issues. I am quite comfortable swimming up to one kilometre doing laps in a swimming pool, and I also know that there aren’t any large predators in Cambodian rivers. However, as I discovered, that didn’t mean that there wasn’t any danger.
However, as I discovered, that didn’t mean that there wasn’t any danger. This time, I didn’t get quite so lucky and could have easily died.
Jumping in wasn’t an issue; I had done that part many times before and so it was quite easy to commit to it, but as I started to leave the bank of the river, I realised that the section I was at this time was much wider than on my previous attempt. I really began to understand what it means to have voices inside one’s head.
I had an incredibly strong urge to stop panicking and start swimming back to the closet shore. Still, a part of me wanted to complete this task, and once I had crossed the halfway point, it felt psychologically easier to keep going to the other side, even if it meant a long journey.
Once I reached the other side, I decided to turn around and swim back pretty quickly, although I was much calmer at this stage, and I believe that the coolness of the water played its part.
However, when I went to just before the middle of the river on my return, I noticed that quite a few boats were heading my way, and I ended up being stuck in the middle of the river, completely invisible to passing boats, trying to avoid being hit or caught up in the motor.
This was perhaps one of the few times in my life when I feared that I wouldn’t make it.
That said, the relief and sense of accomplishment on reaching dry land was quite something and made me understand that I am still a long way from conquering the fear of death or even learning to stay calm under stressful situations.
As a final thought, I like the idea of doing physically (and mentally) challenging actions to test my philosophical progress because philosophy is not about being able to recite books or understand concepts; it is about living life.
This chapter of the Enchiridion of Epictetus is quite apt:
Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.