Early in your experience with Real Love, undoubtedly you encountered—or will encounter—the "drowning story." Allow me to summarize it here:
The Drowning Story
Imagine that you and I are sitting together by a pool, where we are enjoying a pleasant lunch, a warm tropical breeze, and the soothing music of a live band. But then someone in the pool begins to splash you—first on your shoes, then higher up on your pants or dress. You can't see who it is because there's a deck chair between you and the person in the pool. At first you ignore it, but eventually you begin to get irritated, and finally you get up from your chair to say something to this thoughtless idiot. As you stand up to look over the chair, however, you see that the man splashing you is drowning. He's only splashing because he's thrashing and kicking in the water to keep his head from going under.
How do you feel now? Are you still angry at the man? Of course not—who in their right mind could be angry at someone who's drowning? In fact, as soon as you see why he's splashing you, you not only lose your irritation, but immediately you try to help him out of the water.
With an understanding of Real Love, the way you feel toward other people in real life can change just as quickly and dramatically as your feelings changed toward the man in the pool. Without sufficient Real Love—without the single most important ingredient required for happiness—people feel like they're drowning all the time, and then they'll use the Getting and Protecting Behaviors that allow them to temporarily keep their heads above water. Regrettably, as they're splashing about in the water with these behaviors, they often affect us in negative ways. When you understand that, your anger at others disappears immediately and effortlessly, replaced by a desire to do what you can to help.
The Rest of the Story
The drowning story is a powerful metaphor, but actually it's too easy. The circumstances of real life are much more difficult.
The Danger of Lifesaving
In real life, drowning people are desperate and dangerous. With occasional exceptions, they will fight your efforts to save them. If you throw a rope, they'll yank on it and knock you off balance. If you go out in a rowboat, they'll tip you over. And if you're brave enough—or perhaps foolish enough—to jump in the water to help them, they'll pull you under the surface.
Anyone who has attempted to be a wise man for another person knows how this metaphor plays out. Emotionally drowning people are desperate, and in their attempts to fill their emptiness or assuage their pain they don't consider or realize their effect on others. From their perspective, the pain of their situation justifies any injury they might cause to others.
The Picky Drowners
Drowners rarely accept without criticism whatever help you offer. If you throw a rope, it won't be the right material, or color, or thickness. Or your throw will be incorrectly placed. Heaven help you if you throw the rope and hit them in the head. They'll scream that you've hurt them, blaming you for their entire condition. They'll say you were mean, cruel, thoughtless. Many people would rather drown than accept a rope thrown imperfectly.
We see this every day from people who have no solution to their misery but are quick to curse the mistakes—real and imagined—of anyone who tries to help.
Some people will accept your attempts to pull them from the water, but then they'll jump right back in, so they can cry for help again. They find this endlessly entertaining.
We see this acted out by people who enjoy the attention of being rescued so much that it almost seems that they choose to create situations where rescue is required.
The Denial of Drowning
Some people simply deny that they're drowning. They splash everyone, but should you point that out, they respond, "Oh no, I'm just swimming. I'm not splashing you. What are you talking about?" You point out that you and everyone else are getting wet, but they respond that it must be raining.
You might ask them if they notice that they are thrashing in the water, and that their breathing is difficult. "No," they say. "I'm fine." You are quite incredulous at this, but they maintain the assertion of their well being.
In real life, it is common for people to deny that their behavior is affecting anyone in a negative way, including themselves. If people admit they are drowning, they would then be obligated to do something about it. So they choose denial, which they believe is the easier course. Insane, but there you are.
The Denial of Responsibility
Some people will admit that they're drowning, but they believe that if they deny responsibility for it, somehow that will make their situation better. "Yes, I'm drowning, but it's not my fault."
Take anger, for example. People might admit that they're angry, but then they blame it on others, hoping that this approach will magically confer happiness on themselves and others—which it never does.
If you attempt to demonstrate how someone's behavior hurt another person, he might respond, "I didn't mean to," as though that excuse would make the hurtful behavior disappear.
So, How Can You Help a Drowner?
Considering the abundant risks of helping a drowning person, how can one even contemplate making this effort without becoming paralyzed with fear? It might help to remember the following:
- You are not responsible for the condition of any drowning person. People are drowning as a result of a lifetime of experiences, not because of what you did or did not do in any particular moment. Most people are lost in the middle of the ocean. If you make a mistake, that might splash a bit of water in their direction and become an inconvenience, but you did not put them in the middle of the ocean. It is important that you understand this, because if you feel an exaggerated sense of responsibility, you will be blinded by your own guilt and fear. Thus blinded, you'll engage—mostly unconsciously—in behaviors designed to diminish your own guilt and fear, which will interfere with your ability to selflessly help others.
- You are not responsible to save anyone. You can love people and teach them, but you cannot save them. If you feel responsible for saving, again you'll attempt to reduce your own discomfort in those situations when rescue is not being accomplished. Thus uncomfortable, you'll help too much. You won't be paying attention to what the drowning person is capable himself, so your efforts to help will actually weaken the person you claim to be assisting. It's also likely that you'll help more than you are able, thereby weakening and perhaps crippling yourself.
- Whatever the drowner says or does to you is all about him or her, not you. Whether your proffered assistance is flawed or not, drowning people tend to blame in a torrent of invective, and if you believe they are describing you—rather than their own lifetime of pain—you'll be selfishly motivated to protect yourself.
If you remember these principles, you'll be free to realize that the only healthy assistance you can offer is what you can give freely. As a wise man, you love and teach as much as you can and as much as the other person can receive. Don't try to do too much, or you'll be exhausted and useless to everyone, including yourself. Don't consistently do too little, either, or you will not grow in knowledge or strength.
As we attempt to offer ourselves to those who drown, we do not come from a position of arrogance. Hardly, because we remember that the only reason we're not drowning ourselves is that others have pulled us from the water. From an attitude of love and gratitude we offer what we can to others, and in the process we grow in our own joy and capacity to love.
Learn how to truly love others and give them what they need.