I knew about the undertow, but it still got me.
On that beach in Panama I went out a little too far and before I had time to yell I got sucked back into the next wave, my heels flailing to find sand and failing, my head moving diagonally down. Then, just as I started to panic, the angry wave that was my world lifted me up and threw me into the shallows again. I looked up and saw the moon, and my friend came over to help me up and say, “You were supposed to watch out for that.”
This is an excellent parable for my emotions. Teachers of contemplation and meditation speak of “the afflictive emotions,” meaning the waves of fury or sadness or frustration that suck us in without warning and give us little hope for escape. Too often they sweep me up in a second and overwhelm me so I can’t seem to get a foothold. I can’t draw on the past or look forward to a time in the future when the wave will be over; I feel controlled, compelled to say and do things I would never in my better moments. Then, when it’s over, I feel empty and stupid. Oh yeah. I was supposed to watch out for that.
Recently, I read something in The Inner Voice of Love by Henri Nouwen that used this very image to describe a struggle like mine:
You wonder what to do when you feel attacked on all sides by seemingly irresistible forces, waves that cover you and want to sweep you off your feet. What are you to do? Make the conscious choice to move the attention of your anxious heart away from these waves and direct it to the One who walks on them and says, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid” (Mt 14:27; Mk 6:50; Jn 6:20).
Oh, Henri, I thought. That’s easy for you to say. (I often talk back to spiritual giants in my head. I hope they don’t call me on it if we ever meet up in the afterlife.)
Soon after I read it, I found myself caught up in a wave of anger, surrounded by it on all sides, having gotten there through a moment’s inattention, again. Sometimes people push my buttons and the rage comes in to choke me, and I can’t think beyond my next breath of air.
If I’m lucky, when this happens, I will have the presence of mind to grit my teeth, try not to say anything stupid, and pray for mercy. And even that has taken a long time to learn. But this time, I decided to try imagining my anger as a literal wave, like the one that got me in Panama. Then I pictured myself bobbing up to the surface and catching a big breath of air. And then I pictured Jesus of Nazareth walking on the rough water. In my head he has wild, curly hair and brown eyes that have seen and understood a lot. He looks pretty average for his time, but he has this quiet kind of authority you can’t ignore. And he looked into my eyes and said, “It’s me. Don’t be afraid.”
And suddenly, honest to Jesus, the wave was just a wave. Still wild and powerful and scary, but temporary. And although I couldn’t keep my own head above water very long, I knew that breath of air could last me awhile. More than that, I knew that wave was powered by fear, the fear that I’d drown in my anger, that I’d never surface again. As any student of riptides knows, the dangerous part is panicking, getting exhausted, and giving up.
I know I’m going to keep getting sucked into waves of afflictive emotions. And I know I can’t walk on water, not on my own power, anyway. But I can hold on to one breath of hope, and a sustaining word, until I float back to the shallows again.