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How to Survive Life’s Unexpected Rip Tides

Faith is not simply a patience that passively suffers until the storm is past. Rather, it is a spirit that bears things – with resignations, yes, but above all, with blazing, serene hope.” —Corazon Aquino

"Red Sky in the Morning" - Photo by Marg HerderRecently, I had a dream where the minister who performed the marriage ceremony for my husband and me, Reverend Stephen Sinclair, was telling me to write about storms. I asked him, “Real storms or emotional storms?” and he answered, “Real storms.” That sounded like odd advice because I normally explore spiritual topics—not science or weather reports.

A few days later, our family headed to the Gulf Shore coast of Alabama for spring break. A red flag flapping briskly on a pole near the ocean pier quickly got my attention. A red flag indicates, “Extremely hazardous ocean conditions with large powerful waves and strong rip currents.” I had just read the news story of IU freshman Isaac Griffith who was seriously injured and almost drowned in a rip tide while on spring break in Florida. Consequently, I paid close attention to the posted instructions on how to survive a rip tide.

Strong rip currents or undertows pull you away from shore and out into deeper ocean waters. The instructions indicated that if caught in a rip tide, you should not fight against the powerful currents. Instead, you should stay calm and then swim parallel to the shore until you escape the tug of the current. Even strong swimmers can’t fight the ocean’s undertow – experienced ones know not to!

A rainstorm that evening brought with it gigantic waves crashing against the shore and streaks of lightening flashing across the sky. It’s an amazing sight to observe from a safe distance. The next morning, the Alabama sun shone brightly, the water glistened, and the beach was littered with tiny pieces of broken seashells, large beached jellyfish, and various food scraps for the feasting shore birds. Pelicans soared past, gracefully skimming the ocean’s surface in search of breakfast. A storm can be a boon for the critters that benefit from the ocean’s turbulence and shifting tides.

Arriving back home in Indiana, I reflected on my understanding of rip currents, ocean tides, and storms. My female body is intimately connected with that rising and falling away of menstrual tides each month. With aching familiarity, I am likewise deeply aware of internal raging storms: those fervent emotions that resist, fight, and struggle against what is not pleasant; those steadfast, determined emotions that want to control what happens in life; and those choppy emotions of unrest that get trigged by fear, loss, sadness, jealousy, and anger. These rip tides course through our minds in the form of destructive thoughts. They can also yield catastrophic hurricanes of verbal or physical devastation when our bodies act out on such powerful negative emotions.

This brings me to the question raised in my dream: Are all storms real?

Is it possible that some storms are the result of the stories we tell ourselves? Are internal storms avoidable if we change our thinking? If we change our perception of events, can we change our habitual reactions?

Storms—physical and emotional—can bring pain and suffering (and are fundamentally disturbing because they bring CHANGE). Yet, storms can also bring necessary growth and unexpected gifts, along with many blessings.

Some thoughts for how to survive life’s rip tides:

•  Avoid getting caught. When you know the warning signs, take precautionary actions to stay out of rough, unsafe waters. What are your personal storm warning signals? (Irritability, tiredness, stress, confusion?) What helps you soothe and calm your inner state before a storm erupts? Is there a quiet, safe place you can go until the red flag stops flapping?

If you do get caught in unexpected rip currents that threaten to pull you under:

•  Stay calm. Don’t panic. Take slow, deep breaths. Repeat a positive affirmation, mantra, or prayer.

•  Acknowledge that you are caught. Denial can be extremely dangerous. Acceptance creates space for healthy, life-saving solutions to surface.

 Stop Struggling. Let go. Do not fight against strong currents. Allow them to flow through and past you. They may carry you some distance from the familiar shoreline (where old habits, thoughts, and behaviors will only bring destruction). Better to ride out these powerful currents of energy and not make them worse with additional agitation by struggling against them.

•  Change directions. In order to shift courses, you need to be aware that you are caught in strong currents and recognize that you need to do something other than fight with that which is pulling you down. For most of us, changing directions is not easy. The pull of a rip tide is relentless. To begin swimming in a more productive manner, you may need to acquire new skills and additional knowledge about the dangers of swift energy currents. Trust that viable, healthy alternatives actually exist.

•  When safely on shore, give thanks. Practice gratitude for the lessons learned. Practice gratitude for friendships. Practice gratitude for the abundant gifts of life and small acts of love provided each day. As an American Indian saying goes, practice gratitude “for unknown blessings already on their way.”


In joy & gratitude,

Diana J. Ensign

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