Thursday, January 29, 2015

Anxiety: Lessons from Lifeguarding

[Note: These remarks are the opinion of the author and are used here for rhetorical purposes. They do not represent professional counsel regarding the treatment of life-threatening situations.]

"Let go and let God." - Unknown

There are few metaphors that represent life better than that of swimming. Think about it. You have to pull yourself forward but also take time to catch your breath. At times you glide through smooth waters and other times you struggle to keep from going under. It seems to me life is one long lap in the pool. 

Life hands us many worries. These worries can grow into anxiety, which will haunt us day and night if we let it. Even for those of us who believe in a loving God and know that everything will turn out all right in the end, anxiety can get us down. Worried thinking is like swimming in turbulent water. When we're in the midst of troubled waters it can be hard to see the big picture and we start to wonder how we'll keep our head above water. That's why we need a lifeguard. 

I worked as a lifeguard one summer and it taught me some important things. Besides things like CPR and how to properly strap someone to a stretcher, I learned a metaphor that I use to help myself combat anxiety. As with all metaphors, it's imperfect, but I find it still helps so I share it here. It goes like this: We are the swimmers. Christ is the lifeguard. We swim around in the pool, trying to have a good time. Meanwhile the lifeguard is up on his chair, watching us to ensure we stay safe. The lifeguard sees it all. He has a good vantage point and his only job while on duty is to watch for swimmers in danger. Often we swimmers think we don't really need the lifeguard. We get annoyed when he blows his whistle trying to enforce what seem like arbitrary rules. We think of him as a killjoy who has no real business watching out for us when we can take care of ourselves. But all that can change, and when it does it's instantaneous. 

Sometimes a swimmer will find himself in water too deep for him and he begins to drown. First, the victim will starts to panic. He tries desperately to keep his head above water and starts flapping his arms. But in my experience every drowning victim would be so much better off if he would just relax. This is counter-intuitive, but it's true. While a drowning victim panics and tries to save himself, he actually uses up precious energy and oxygen that would be conserved if he stopped for a moment to think. He forgets he has two good legs dangling under him and uses all his energy to flail around. If he were to stop for a second and take stock of the situation he would solve half the problem. Even going under for a moment could actually do him some good if he took that time to realize he should get his legs moving. He might realize he should lay horizontally and try to move toward the side of the pool, rather than staying vertical and going nowhere. The problem is the body's natural instinct is to flap and flail. Every bone in his body tells him to keep panicking. It's a survival instinct, so it's nearly impossible to overcome. The lifeguard understands this. At the first sign of drowning he's in the water. 

If the victim stops trying to save himself and lets the lifeguard take over, everything is fine. The lifeguard can take the victim to safety. But occasionally there are complications. Sometimes the victim lets fear overcome him. He assumes he has to do everything he can to save himself and actually stops the lifeguard from saving him. The lifeguard approaches and the victim grabs onto him. The victim climbs all over the lifeguard, unwittingly immobilizing his rescuer in an attempt to stay on the surface. This delays the rescue. The lifeguard has no choice but to escape and start over again. If the victim stopped and let the lifeguard to take him to safety he would actually get there more quickly than by trying to save himself. Luckily this kind of struggle is rare and usually occurs only a couple of times before the lifeguard gets into position and is able to get the victim to safety. 

Now, water emergencies come in multiple forms and there is much more to being a lifeguard than performing simple rescues, but what I've described is sufficient for the analogy. After spending many days as a lifeguard and also dealing with many anxieties, I have found a few lessons to be learned from scenarios like these. Here are four things I like to remember when I find myself in the deep waters of worry:

1. Keep the Rules

Any good lifeguard will tell you how much easier life would be if patrons just obeyed pool rules. Accidents could be avoided and injuries prevented if people just took the rules seriously. It's the same way in life. Christ, our lifeguard, gives us commandments and expects us to follow him. These commandments are designed to reduce our anxieties and help us lead more peaceful lives. As swimmers we might think we've got an ingenious new way to have fun at the pool and therefore we can afford to break the rules to try it out. But our lifeguard has seen it all before. He knows what's going to happen better than we do and he'll blow his whistle to keep us from getting ourselves into trouble. It gives him no pleasure to call us out (whistle-blowing is actually just as annoying for the lifeguard as it is for the swimmer), but he knows it's better to prevent a possible drowning than to fix one in progress. Keep the commandments the best you can and you will fix many of life's worries before they happen.

2. Stop and Think
Sometimes we don't listen to our lifeguard and we break the rules. Other times we keep the rules and we still find ourselves struggling with great anxiety. But even in these situations there is hope. If you find yourself drowning, don't panic. Remember, panic always speeds up the drowning process, both in the water and in life. Hold on a minute and think. You're not defeated yet. You still have some control over the situation. What are you forgetting? Are your legs dangling beneath you, so to speak? Should you be moving in a different direction? Take a small moment to relax and focus on where you are right now and it will make a world of difference. When the waters of life get too deep, just stop, think, and look around. You're probably doing better than you realize.

3. Stop Trying to Be Your Own Lifeguard
Every drowning victim thinks they are doing the right thing by frantically trying to save themselves, but they usually go about it in the most ineffective way possible. And if you're still trying to save yourself once the lifeguard arrives, you're bound to make things even worse. The lifeguard cannot save you if you are too busy trying to save yourself. That's true both literally and metaphorically. Don't try to be your own savior and do it all on your own. 

4. Trust the Heavenly Lifeguard
Christ is the perfect lifeguard. He knows the waters better than anyone and he has seen this desperate situation unfold a thousand times before. Don't believe for one second he's just going to sit in his chair and let you drown. That's not in his job description. The lifeguard is a savior. That is his one and only job. Just like a good lifeguard, Christ is always on duty and he has been trained like no one else to rescue you. He waits to jump in as soon as you call for help and he will bring you out of the water as soon as you let him. Accept his help. Rather than bobbing up and down in one place, let Christ take you away to safety. 

I hope my little metaphor has helped in some small way. I know life will always be hard and anxiety is not a problem solved in a day. But just remember: every drowning victim would be better off if they relaxed for a moment and then accepted help. Alert your heavenly lifeguard and trust him to come to your rescue.  

Lastly, no matter what currents you are being swept up in, just remember to hold on. Hold on! Help is on the way. The lifeguard will not let you drown in the waters of life. Just trust him. Don't give up on him before he arrives. He hasn't given up on you. 

Image Credits (in order of appearance):
2. "Lifeguard" by Geo087 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
5. "HK Wong Chuk Hang 包玉剛游泳池 Pao Yue Kong Swimming Pool 08 副池 2nd Pool Lifeguard May-2012" by Namtoagaowen - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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