On July 19th, 2018, a violent thunderstorm descended on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, unleashing six-foot waves that capsized a tourist boat. Seventeen people drowned. Tia Coleman was on that boat with 10 family members. She lost 9 of them, including her husband, daughter, and two sons. Her harrowing account is worth hearing:
When the water filled up the boat, I could no longer see. I couldn’t feel anybody, I couldn’t see. I just remember, “I gotta get out, I gotta get out…” When I got out into the water, it was ice cold… I knew if it was so cold, I’m close to the bottom, not close to the top. I just remember kicking and swimming up to the top… As I was swimming up, I was praying, I said, ‘Lord please, let me get to my babies.’ And I was kicking. And the harder I fought to get up to the top, I was getting pulled down. I kept fighting and I kept fighting. And then I said, ‘Lord if I can’t make it, there’s no use in keeping me here.’ And so I just let go, and I started floating. And as I started floating, I felt the water temperature change, and it got warmer, and as it got warmer I knew I was to the top.
Ms. Coleman says she owes her life to God and the good samaritans who eventually pulled her out of the water. This may be so. My takeaway is that she’s alive because she was able to let go.
The Branson accident was a tragedy; but there’s something to be learned from Tia Coleman’s story, even if your life is not literally in danger. You may feel overwhelmed, dragged down, or pummeled, as though the very elements are against you. The shock of bad news, the grind of everyday difficulties, loss, loneliness, the inability to protect the people you love – such things may not technically threaten your life, but it can certainly feel that way, and trigger your survival response. And so you may find yourself obsessively adding up figures for the tenth, twentieth, fiftieth time, hoping they’ll be different this time around; making frantic phone calls or sending text messages with your teeth clenched and your breath held; lying awake at night with your heart beating hard, following the film inside your head, a horrible projection of what could be, or a lurid version of what is. You may take wild stabs at action to try and change the situation, or attempt to beat it into submission, like whacking an ant with a sledgehammer. You may try to run away, or disappear.
It’s all a kind of flailing.
And flailing can get you drowned.
Respect the Water
Any seafarer worth their salt will tell you: the key to not drowning is to float or tread water lightly, and calm your breathing. Some call it “flip & float.” Others say, “head back, belly up, ask for help.” The Japanese call it uitemate – “floating and waiting”– and train their children to do it. It’s solid advice for flailers of all sorts: when in distress, don’t panic, but float and breathe.
Fred Lanoue, swimming coach at the Georgia Institute of Technology from 1936 to 1964, taught what he called “Drownproofing” – floating vertically with your face submerged, lifting your head just long enough to take a breath. “Try and adopt the attitude of a kitten being carried by a cat,” advises a website that explains his method. “Just hang there and let the water support you.” What a concept – allowing yourself to be carried by what’s threatening you. But if you recognize that It is bigger than You, there’s a strange logic to it, one that defies your instinct to thrash or resist. This is surely what’s behind the name of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute’s drowning-prevention campaign: it’s called Respect the Water.
Floating is not a strategy for all occasions. Sometimes you need a stronger kick, the will and motivation to push your way through resistance. But there are things in this life – quite a few, actually – that you cannot control. When you’ve done all you can do, it may be time to open up to your adversary. Not as a victim, not giving up, but in recognition of your limits.
Think about it now: if you name something in your life that’s difficult, that you cannot control, what happens? What happens in your body? What happens to your breathing? Where do you resist? Where’s the fight? And then: can you let go and float? Can you release your muscles and your grip on the situation like the kitten carried by the cat? What if you respect the water – accept the threat as bigger than you – and yield? What would that look like, in your situation? How does it feel?
When I lived with my parents, until I left home at 17, I would occasionally walk into their bedroom (it was just off the kitchen, and they never closed the door) and come upon my mother kneeling at the side of the bed, praying.
It was startling to see her there, elbows on the nubby bedspread, fingers interlaced and supporting her forehead, or holding a rosary or a small book with pictures of saints, and prayers. Her mouth moved silently, her eyes were unfocused or closed. If she heard me she gave no sign; she was there yet not there, like a hologram, as though she had disappeared inside herself. I would take in this intimacy for a few seconds – fascinated, uncomfortable – before backing out of the room.
I cannot say for sure what she whispered, but I can guess. She had her share of adversaries. At the time, I imagined a litany of requests, demands, concerns: my mother tended to flail. But now when I see her there in my mind’s eye – head bowed in the yellowish light of the bedside lamp, knees pressed into the gold-and-brown shag carpet – I see that she was floating. For all her thrashing, she also had the humbleness that letting go requires. It did not save her in the end. But I’d like to think it made her day-to-day less of a burden, that her practice of letting go was what allowed her to laugh, to joke, to do what came next. And to want to be in the world, in spite of its harshness.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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Photo: Fredrik Wetterlundh.