Roger Deakin wrote a beautiful book called Waterlog, his account of wild swimming through moats, rivers, lakes and tarns around the English landscape. His viewpoint, with his nose ploughing a furrow through the pondweed and tadpoles, viewing nature from a wetter and closer viewpoint than usual, is a wonderful piece of writing, one of my favourite books. Deakin was a man with little respect for restrictions on his waterlogged activities, happy to trespass in the name of a good swim.
The book has been televised as well, with the anatomist and physical anthropologist Alice Roberts undertaking her own swimming odyssey and recreating some of the dips that Deakin published. She describes her first ‘wild’ swim as feeling like breaking the rules, a tingling excitement that one is doing something slightly naughty. Having been bitten by the wild swimming bug (and spurred on by Deakin’s wife, with a twinkle in her eye) she culminates her trip with the ultimate adventure of skinny dipping in a mountain lake, describing the ultimate freedom of being surrounded by the water, unrestricted and unfettered by either clothing or rules.
I’ve experienced this myself during walking trips where one washes or swims in a stream: a feeling of both liberation and a slight sensation of breaking the rules. The memories are strong, the feeling of being in control, of freedom.
But why do these light forays into the world of the forbidden feel so good? What makes the thrill of the experience so exciting? What do we learn from pushing past the boundaries of everyday experience and into something new, especially something slightly naughty?
So many of the restrictions we face everyday are self imposed, submitting our will to the overarching will of society. We talk quietly on the train, avoid eating strong smelling foods in the office and stick to the left hand steps when climbing to leave the right ones free for people coming down. In short, we generally try to fit in, and it’s a great thing, making the world a tiny bit nicer for lots of people.
But maybe we all have a slightly rebellious streak. Maybe we all secretly want to slide down the bannisters or have a go on the bouncy castle, even though the age limit is for ten year olds.
I’m not talking about shoplifting or trying out some light mugging, but rather those times when we bend the unwritten rules: the transgressions we avoid because we are too polite. What happens when we break those rules?
Learning is about experiences, about things that stand out from the ordinary. If we do the things we’ve always done, we won’t learn anything new. Sometimes, we need to push ourselves, to reach out, maybe to break the odd rule or two. Why? Because it feels good! But is this desire to misbehave, to talk at the back of the class, simply naughtiness, or is there more to it than that? What do we learn from breaking the rules?
Maybe we learn a little about ourselves, a broader perspective. Maybe it gives us sight of how so many of the boundaries we feel around us are just in our heads. Maybe it’s a break from the normal that lets us understand what ‘normal’ is. So we are unlikely to learn how to do our job better, or to make the world a better place, but maybe breaking the odd rule now and then lets us learn about ourselves. Perhaps it allows us to feel like children again, to revel in the freedom from structure and strictures. Perhaps we learn a little bit more about what it means to be ourselves.
You can find out more about Roger Deakin here:
And Alice Roberts here