A Cry for Help

By Eric Venable

So, my kids and I love water. We love splashing, playing, and swimming in natural bodies of water both big and small. Lakes, creeks, rivers and the occasional ocean have all been some of our favorite natural playgrounds over the years and thankfully Alabama has plenty of these to choose from. They are much cheaper than a pool membership and they often provide unique adventures and interesting conversation starters. You never get to encounter poisonous snakes, shady, Southern riff-raff or drug paraphernalia at your neighborhood pool. And only in the great outdoors do you get to make cool slow-mo videos of your kids swimming under booming waterfalls or jumping off rocks into cold pools of water below. 

Earlier this last summer I experienced one of my more harrowing river escapades at one of our favorite places to play and swim, Cahaba River Park. It was a warm but not too hot day, and the river was crowded with adults and kids of various ages. Across from the small beach area at Cahaba River Park there is a great rope swing attached to a tall tree that has been there for at least a few years. The rope looks dubious at first but after you watch a few people swing on it you realize that you (likely!) will not die by hanging from the rope and swinging out into the water. My kids and I were there with several other kids taking turns on the swing and having a fine time of innocent fun. Three of the kids in our group included three boys, two of which looked to be teenagers and the third boy was much younger, somewhere between six and eight years old. After several minutes, the two older boys swam further away into the river leaving the younger boy in our group. I noticed that he would let go of the swing not extremely far into the water from the shore and I was concerned for him. it bothered me. There were several roots and rocks right beneath the tree where the rope swing extended out and if you landed directly on any of those where the water was shallow, you could easily get hurt.

After watching him do this several times I suggested that he needed to let go of the rope swing further out into the water where it was deeper so that he wouldn’t get hurt. A few other kids used the swing and then it was his turn. And he did exactly as I suggested, letting go of the rope swing further out into the water where the depth was about five or six feet. After his head re-emerged from the water, I praised him saying, “There you go buddy, that’s how you do it.” But then I quickly saw a look of panic in his eyes. The water was over his head, and he obviously did not know what to do and could not swim.

If you have ever seen the look of terror in the eyes of a child who is in water over his head and can’t swim, it’s a look you will not easily forget. I’m guessing I had somewhere between five to seven seconds to jump in and act before this kid drowned right in front of me. Thankfully, I was standing only a few feet in front of him and stormed into the water aided by the help of a sudden surge of adrenaline coursing through my body. I grabbed him and yelled incredulously as we made it back to the shore, “Do you know how to swim??” (An obviously dumb, rhetorical question). He shook his head sheepishly as he was visibly ashamed. I felt a ton of anger in the next few minutes, anger that mostly was rooted in my fear and shock over the entire situation. The older two teenage boys he was with were at least twenty or thirty feet away and were completely oblivious of the entire situation. I yelled over to them that they needed to come help the boy in need because he couldn’t swim and was in a lot of danger if someone wasn’t watching him.

In the days since then I have reflected a lot on the situation as it got my attention. I feel bad that I unknowingly put the boy in greater danger even though I know this wasn’t my fault. I thought I was keeping him out of harm’s way by suggesting he let go of the rope where it would be safer to fall into the water, but my good-intentioned suggestion almost got him killed. I still feel anguish at the total absence of any responsible adult figure who could have kept him safe. Other people’s irresponsible neglect almost cost this child his life. If I had not been standing in front of him, if I had been further away or simply looking in another direction for too long, the consequences could have been overwhelmingly dreadful.

I have also thought a lot about the fact that as he struggled in the water to keep his head above the surface, he never once cried out for help, he never made a sound even as he fought for his own survival. As I have reflected on this, I see now that not being able to swim wasn’t his biggest problem although surely that was near the top of the list. His biggest problem was that he lived in a world where he couldn’t cry out for help and receive a caring response, a world where it was shameful for him to need and rely on others. I’m not certain what he was thinking as the panic began to set in that he wasn’t going to be able to keep his head above the water for much longer. I doubt he thought, “I could ask for help, but I’m not going to because I would rather drown.” It’s much more likely that he simply didn’t conceive of it being an option that he could cry out for help, and someone would save him. Likely, his options were tragically binary: either figure it out on your own or perish. As I observed him with the other two boys he came with, it was clear that no one was looking out for him, that no one was particularly concerned about his safety or welfare. He lived in a world where he understandably believed that crying out for help wasn’t going to get him anywhere, that it was a waste of his time. And living this way, again not likely a conscious choice, put him in great danger. 

Sadly, many of us live like the boy I saw that day. Whether through our own choices or because we have learned a long time ago that people are unresponsive, we often can live with a “figure it out myself or drown” mentality. I certainly have lived this way for much of my life.  And like the boy I saw that day, we don’t usually understand the enormous danger we are in when we live this way. We often live lives of “quiet desperation” as Henry David Thorough poignantly once wrote. For some of us, perhaps many of us, we will drown before we ask for help. We will stay in deep, unrelenting emotional pain or devastating spiritual battles alone because we believe that there is no other option. I’m increasingly convinced that many of us would not ask for help even if our lives depended on it. And you would think asking for help would get easier the older you get, but the opposite is true. The assumption for many of us is that the older you get, the more capable, confident, and strong you will become, but I find myself  needing more help with things now than I have ever needed before. I’m in a phase of life where I have begun to slowly embrace the truth about being human without guilt or shame, that I am a finite, limited creature with built-in weaknesses that I regularly need help with.

One of the most important aspects of being human is our ability to ask for help and this is the heart of our faith as Christians. We can understand Christian faith from many different angles but one of the most important aspects of it involves a cry for help. Psalm 107 beautifully describes this in the refrain that is repeated throughout the Psalm, “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.” Crying out to God in this Psalm is what precedes God’s people experiencing His salvation and knowing God’s steadfast love in a deeper way. Yet tragically many of us are filled with deep shame in doing this. I see this often in my counseling with people when they come into my office looking very dejected, just their very presence in my office seems to feel like defeat for them, a sign that they have failed because of their need to come and ask a stranger for help. A fundamental part of our faith in God is the belief that we were never made to live a self-sufficient life. When God tells the first man, “It’s not good for man to be alone,” he is not making a statement only about marriage but a statement about His good design for every human being. We are not made to live alone. God’s design was never for us to live in a self-self-sufficient way, in a “figure it out myself or drown” way that creates for us all kinds of miserable and desperate situations. When we live in this way, we are living exactly the way evil wants us to live, a kind of life that accelerates our experience of spiritual destruction and pain. Instead, God created us (even apart from sin!) to depend on others, to cry out to God and others for help in the places where we are weak. And doing this is not a sign of sin or failure but a sign that we will always and inescapably be human beings, people made in the glorious and good image of God, the One who has promised to be our help and strength. So, no matter how painful it feels or how much shame tries to dissuade us, we must throughout our life cry out for help, repeatedly. Our lives depend on this.

Click here to see Daymark's upcoming events and seminars. 

We'd love to hear how this article affected you. After each article we publish a counselor round-table where we discuss the questions and thoughts of our readers and you. Got a question? Let us know!