You’re enjoying the perfect stroll along the beach: the crunch of sand between your toes, the lapping waves, the glorious sun on your face. You notice the wind caressing your hair — suddenly you hear cries for help! – the agony of a fellow being beginning to drown. Your impulse is to heroically swim out, drag the person to shore, provide mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and thereby save their life.
Have you heard about this? That’s the exact thing you must not do. Unless you’re a trained lifeguard and know exactly how to help, you can’t go in the water. A drowning person, in their panic, will pull you under in an attempt to save themselves, and there will be two drowned persons instead of one. It’s a nasty fact, but if you want to save a life, the only thing you can do is summon help.
Even if it’s a family member, you can’t go in unless you’ve received training in saving lives. Standing on the shore, knowing you can’t help: heartbreaking. Choosing to save your own life rather than two people dying: excruciatingly painful.
“Dan” is a patient of mine who has reached a certain degree of success with his acting. He has all the talent, looks, and charisma needed, but lacks the persistence to complete the daily tasks to further his career. In therapy, we’ve been examining his close bond with his family back in the Midwest who are uniformly depressed, unhappy with their lives, and lack the will to change. There are unwritten rules that family members are not supposed to become too successful, or stray too far from unhappiness. In other words, Dan’s family is drowning, and in an effort to try and save them, Dan is being sucked down and is drowning along with them.
Dan and I have been talking about how he needs to “let his parents drown.” He’s not trained in lifesaving. If he wants, he can go back to school, study psychotherapy or social work, and change his profession to become a “trained lifeguard.” But even those of us who are, aren’t effective working with our own families.
Although it is painful to stand on the shore and realize that someone you love is drowning and you cannot save them, it is a decision you must make in order that your own life be saved. Certainly you can try to summon help by pointing them to therapy, but they may not choose to go. It’s essential that at least one life be saved. It’s time for you to become free and save yourself.
© 2014 Catherine Auman This article is an excerpt from Catherine’s book Shortcuts to Mindfulness: 100 Ways to Personal and Spiritual Growth