The lifeguards had already left, and I was ready to leave the beach, too. I was sitting in the last bit of sun, waiting for my wife and our bestie to finish packing their stuff in the shade that had engulfed our blanket, when we’d heard the commotion.
“Do you need help?!” I called.
Five of us lept into action. I heard my superhero theme song in my head as I pulled off my had and shirt, kicked off my sandals, rushed to the water, reviewing in my head my lifeguard training of thirty years ago, and checking my pockets to make sure I didn’t dive in with my phone (that I never saw again).
Someone else had gotten there first. A young man, with mid length, dirty blond hair and a tribal shoulder tattoo. He takes over from the person who was already struggling to help, grabbed the struggling man, and began towing him back to shore.
“What the f*** were you thinking? That was so stupid,” says the amateur lifeguard.
“I know, I’m a coward, I’m so stupid, I thought I could swim,” says the frightened young man.
“Can you breathe?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Notice you’re safe,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
“Don’t do that again,” says the tattooed savior.
Another man had arrived. “We’ll deal with that later,” he said.
“I’m so sorry for causing you so much trouble….” continued the distressed man
“it’s okay, we’ll deal with that later…”
So one man was towing his body, while the other two were towing his spirit along with him.
Whenever physical or emotional trauma happens, we go into survival mode. We don’t have all our natural faculties. We tend to make decisions about ourselves from a depleted position. In this case: “I’m so stupid, I’m a coward.” In other situations, like risking asking our crush to a middle school dance “I’m too ugly/nerdy/worthless.”
When we are vulnerable, we are open, our guards are down, and these messages can pass through deep into our identity as shame.
Later, when we are safe, we need to re-examine what we decided in those depleted moments.
This also happens with things like tight hamstrings in a forward bend. I remember in a yoga class, one leg forward, the other leg back, folding over the front leg, feeling the tightness in the hamstrings: “my hamstrings are too tight” I decided. Repeat that over a few months. I really believed that about myself. I was someone who had tight hamstrings. The limitation was part of my identity. One day I wondered if my hamstrings were really too tight, or if I was just tightening them out of fear. I moved slowly and was completely surprised that I got my nose down to my shin. It turns out that in this case, the idea of the limitation was actually the cause of the limitation.
Or more vulnerably – after high school, I drove my car head-on into another and took someones life. I am worthless, I decided. It took a lot of digging to extract that one out of my identity. Looking back, I see I made a serious mistake with horrific consequences, that I learned from.
Back at the beach, the young man thanks the tattooed savior.
“Thank you so much. I am so grateful.”
“Just don’t do that again,” was the dismissive response before he walked away.
He was getting shame both internally and externally. I spent a few more minutes with him. I mentioned getting right back on the bike if you fall off, and went back in and taught him a bit about treading water.
“Definitely do that again. You were not a coward. You were reaching for something beyond your limits. That is the opposite of cowardice. Definitely learn to swim, build that confidence, conquer that fear. Cross that lake by the end of Summer. Masters fail more times than most people try.”
Whatever your past, please look back, take the lessons, leave the shame.