Rivers and the oceans are the subject of countless poems and stories. In these anecdotes, we often read about a hero weathering a storm in a small boat or learning to conquer powerful and relentless waves. Sometimes the protagonist battles a creature of the sea or he learns to master the winds to set his sails in the right direction. All are metaphors for life.
As I sat and watched the water recently, I, too, was struck by a metaphor that the sea presented to me. Through my observation, I noticed that the water always seems to be moving forward. The roll of soft waves is never away from the beach. It is a constant motion toward the sand. What we don’t see (or maybe don’t always notice), however, is the action that happens underneath the surface; the undertow that pulls the water back to its source.
I sat and watched that water for quite a while. As I did, the metaphor grew stronger and stronger. I could recall with great clarity the feeling of standing in a surf zone where the water is relatively shallow, but the waves are high. Some of those waves I was able to jump. Some simply swelled around me, lifting my body off the ground in a carefree float. And some of those waves knocked me over and pushed salt water down my throat. I can recall in every situation, however, the sensation of undertow – the sand rushing backward over by bare skin as I regained my footing in the surf. That undertow says to me that even the strongest waves can be balanced out; that another force in nature knows the ocean so well that it works perfectly in tandem with it in a beautiful and productive way.
Many people confuse the term undertow with a rip current. The two are actually different things. While an undertow occurs wherever there are shore-approaching waves, a rip current is actually a more localized event that only occurs in certain places along the shore line. Undertows, I think, are a healthy and necessary characteristic of the sea. The rip current, however, has the potential to be dangerous. Both things, I believe, also serve as metaphors for life.
How much our lives are like the sea! It is no wonder so many of us are drawn to it. Like the water, we have an energy within us that drives us forward. It opens our eyes in the morning, calls us out of bed, and sends us out into the world with the hope that today will be better than yesterday. But under the surface of that drive, don’t we also have an undercurrent of thoughts, ideas, and connections? That undertow helps us to balance the momentum of enthusiastically moving forward with the reminder of who we are and what we value. The partnership of undertow and waves helps us to make decisions that are good for us.
The rip currents in our lives, however, are those things that serve as potential distractions. They interrupt the natural balance of ebb and flow and pull us from our intended direction. I think it is sometimes dangerously easy to confuse the two influences in our sea. But one clear distinction can be made: undertow is constant and true. It is a natural hesitation in us; an impetus to think before we act; a reminder that progress forward requires us to work hard, to navigate the world well, and to trust that even with the forces that sometimes work against us, another surge will come to push us once again forward.
Conversely, rip tides in life pop up unexpectedly – often when we think we have comfortably mastered how to ride the tide. The danger of the rip tide is that often presents itself with great force and passion…the kind of force that leads us to question our own decisions, to forget the lessons we’ve learned from the past, and to undermine our own well-being. As a result, we begin to make decisions that are “safe.” We fall into a pattern of surviving instead of thriving. We lose our ability to embrace adventure. The secret to the rip tide? Relax. Tread water for a while. Do not make sudden changes to direction as a reaction to the rip tide’s pull. Instead, live a life parallel to your shore. In time, the forward motion of the waves and the corresponding undertow will set you back on course, safe from drowning in a distraction that – for a moment – seemed like something that required your attention.
Because I always bring my reflections back to our relationships, I ask you, “Who are the rip tide people in your life?” Are you able to identify the people whose energy or intentions pull you away from your shore? Who are the people whose decisions have left you fighting in one way or another to survive? And do these people exert an energy or passion that is hard to ignore (despite the danger they represent) simply because you share a common ocean in some way?
Conversely, who are the people who know what lies beneath your surface and still choose to work in partnership with you? Can you identify the people who are able to both ride your waves and also keep you grounded? Who are the people whose actions push you not into an open and scary sea, but who more gently invite you to a place of love and acceptance? These are your undertow people. Embrace them, celebrate those relationships, and remember that when a wave knocks you over, these are the people whose influence will pull back the tide so you have time to once again stand.