If we had to pick one lesson, virtue or skill that fathers should teach their children, what would that be? What proficiencies did St. Joseph, the guardian of the Holy Family and the foster father of Jesus, pass on to Our Lord before He began His public ministry? Did he teach the Christ Child how to swim?
My New York City barber is Jewish. He has three sons who work in his shop, which is open on Sundays and closed on Saturdays in keeping with the Sabbath. He told me that in his faith, fathers have three obligations, which they must perform for their sons: have them circumcised, ensure their education and provide them with a trade. He said nothing about teaching them to keep their heads above crashing ocean waves.
Some rabbis insist that their ancient legislative book, the Talmud, requires all children be taught to swim. Why? Would this rule apply to people who live in the desert or near the frozen tundra? Or does this ordinance have a more symbolic meaning which has nothing to do with the sea?
Parenting is not easy. Children come into the world with varied personalities, wants, and needs. They do not come with individualized training manuals. Since all kids are different, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for becoming the perfect dad. Why, then, would the Hebrew tradition require paternal instructions in aquatic competency? Does the phrase sink-or-swim apply here? Perhaps.
However, to be clear, we should first dispel the myth that all babies are born with the ability to swim. They are not. Yes, a pediatric pulmonologist will attest to the bradycardic response in which an infant automatically holds its breath and opens its eyes when submerged. While this makes it appear as though they can swim from birth, it is only a temporary reflex, not a permanently learned behavior. Babies do drown. Is this why there is a Jewish mandate to learn to swim? Or is there a broader connotation intended here?
Diving boards are not essential for human existence. People can live their entire lives without ever jumping into a lake or standing up on water-skis. Wading into the deep, in fact, assumes that we are entering an alien environment, one where we cannot survive if we do not know how to backstroke or tread water. Maybe teaching a child to swim is a symbolic way of requiring that our offspring learn to become autonomous and to thrive in a world, which can be inhospitable, oppositional and even hostile at times. There are many occasions in life that can take our breath away. Some are extremely pleasant; others are not. Before we can succeed by becoming independent adults, we must learn from those who love us when to breathe in deeply the cherished moments of life, and how to hold our breath and our tongue when prudence surpasses valor, and which experiences are best exhaled and forgotten so we can move on in life without drowning in self-pity. In a word, we must learn how to swim.
For Holy Homework: Let's recall something which dad passed on to us, whether that be a skill, a virtue or an important lesson for which we are especially grateful, and then offer a prayer of thanks in his honor for this vital favor.
Happy Father's Day to our life-giving swimming coaches and thank you.
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