When I was 16 years old, I trained to be a lifeguard. The lesson on our very first day surprised me. In the movies, the rescuer shouts, “I’ll save you!” then dives in and swims madly toward the drowning person. It turns out that in real rescues, you only get in the water as a very last resort. Instead, the best thing you can do is to stay with your feet planted firmly on the shore and either extend something like a long branch or throw something like a life buoy that the drowning person can hold onto to stay afloat.
All of these lessons came back to me the other day while I was talking with a good friend. When I asked her how she was doing, she instantly barraged me with all of her problems, anger, blame, and self-pity. Energetically, it felt like she had jumped on top of me and wanted to drag me down with her.
Although my first instinct was to jump in there with her as she was thrashing around, I remembered my lifeguard training and put it into play. I exhaled, grounded myself on the shore, then offered her a couple of life lines. First, I expressed my genuine compassion for the difficult situation she was in. I next gave her the phone number of someone who could help her out of her situation even better than I could. Lastly, I assured her that I would call her in a few hours to check in.
I certainly wasn’t going to leave her there to drown, but neither was I going to go down with her. Buddhists call this practice “compassionate detachment.” As any lifeguard will tell you, there’s absolutely no point in having two drowning victims.
© 2017 by Laurie Gardner