Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sink or Swim

In her sermon titled “The Shepherd’s Flute,” Barbara Brown Taylor begins by telling the story of when her husband and a friend were going duck hunting in the friend‘s boat. When they arrived at the boat dock, they discovered that the boat had come untied and was floating away. As much as they tried to reach if from the riverbank, the current carried it away and the friend eventually had to shed his hunting gear, jump in the frigid water, and swim out to get the boat. They both agreed it should be the friend to take the plunge because it was the friend’s boat.

The second story is about two friends who parked in a parking garage and the driver accidentally bumped the car next to him as he was exiting his car. The driver of the other car jumped out and began yelling, despite that there was no damage. The first driver’s friend got out of the car to diffuse the situation, but the irate car owner told him to stay out of it as the dispute didn't involve him.  To which the friend replied, “When you’re talking to my friend, you’re talking to me.”

Later she goes on to explain the following, which I have been thinking about all weekend:

All in all, we are warned away from getting involved in other people’s problems. Parents teach us to mind our own business and let other people mind theirs. Therapists call it “trespassing boundaries,” or “ co-dependence,” and they have a point. Sometimes our ownership of others’ problems ends up crippling both them and us, by eroding our responsibility for our own lives.  When we make a habit of rescuing other people, we prevent them from learning about the consequences of their actions. We help them keep illusions about themselves, and we get to be heroes in the bargain, but it is not good for them or for us. Everybody deserves a chance to fail.  It is how we learn to be human.
But we also deserve to have someone in our lives who will say, “When you’re talking to him, you’re talking to me,” someone who will tear her clothes off and dive into the water when what is disappearing down the river happens to be us. That is not “ co-dependence.”  That is agape, self-giving love, the kind of love the good shepherd practices and the kind he teaches.
In reading this, I began to think of how much I appreciate the people in my life who have been there for me, to swim after me and keep me from disappearing down the river. But I also realized how ill-equipped many of us are, myself included, to be that person who is diving in, reaching out, standing in, or pulling someone back to shore. We don’t know what to do, aren't sure of our ability to swim, aren't sure exactly of how to help. We stand by either hoping (or praying) for them to save themselves or we end up offering assistance that doesn't really meet their need.

I know it’s not really fair and I know it feels like other people should know what we need, but if we’re being berated by life or struggling to stay afloat, we need to say something to the panicked onlookers. Tell them that we need them to yell back, to pull us in, or to just tread water with us while we get our bearings. If they are trying to put together a rowing team to come out and get us, but what we need is for them to remind us that we are an excellent swimmer and to simply cheer us on, we should try to tell them that. If someone wants to take revenge and shout back at the bully but we just need them to stand quietly by our side, say that. It is easy to think that the people who care about us should instinctively know how to support us. But people process and approach situations differently. What they are offering may seem like the best idea to them, but may be hurting us.

Again, it isn't fair and I know sometimes we may not have the strength to fully explain what we need, but, if at all possible, I really think we need to try. I’m speaking just as much to myself here as I am to anyone else.  It may make all the difference between sinking or making it back to shore.

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