Photo by Vitor Pinto on Unsplash

Riptides: “A strong, narrow, powerful current of water running perpendicular to the beach, out into the ocean.”

There have been several heartbreaking stories this summer about people vacationing at the beach, just enjoying life, when they found themselves inadvertently caught in a riptide and drowning. As a mother, I read the horrifying headline of a woman who witnessed her partner and son being carried out to sea by this powerful current, only for both of her loved ones to die tragically. This story evoked a slight sense of panic in me knowing my own beach trip was just a few weeks away and that my children too would be playing out in the ocean and stirred my deep desire to protect them as much as humanly possible.

So, what did I do? Of course, I decided to google “HOW TO SURVIVE A RIP CURRENT”. It is important to note that approximately100 people a year in the United States drown after being sucked out to sea. Conventional wisdom has held that the best way to survive a riptide is by swimming perpendicular to the beach until you have gotten out of this powerful channel of rip currents. Interestingly, Jamie MacMahan, a rip current expert at the Naval Post graduate School in Monterey decided to do some personal experimentation with this theory.

 He volunteered to do a safety video that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization was filming. As he was swimming parallel to the shore, he noticed it was easier to swim one direction more than the other. He realized the safety guidelines he had spent his career promoting could quite possibly be wrong. His research involved studying rip currents around the world and he noted that they can form on any beach and swimmers often don’t recognize they are in one until they are firmly caught up its powerful grip. A swimmer stuck in a circulating rip has no way to determine which way the water is flowing. So, if you swim parallel to the shore you have a 50/50 chance of swimming against the deadly current.

When caught in the deadly riptide, many people die trying to swim back to shore, they struggle against the unrelenting pull, panic and become so tired they eventually drown. McMahon’s advice runs counterintuitive to our primitive evolutionary survival instincts…when faced with the overwhelming power of the rip currents, he urges us to give in and go with the flow. Just relax, and allow yourself to float on your back, and if you can resist the urge to fight against the current and swim toward the shoreline, he reassures us that there is a high probability of being carried back to the beach by the very currents you were trying to swim against. McMahan’s research and strategies may be controversial, but regardless, he offers us a potent metaphor on how we can learn a new approach when confronted with riptides of our own lives.

Consider the parallel in our personal lives, when things become turbulent, and frightening, how many of us have found ourselves responding in much the same way. We instinctively want to fight and push away those things that feel hard and uncomfortable. We rage against anything that feels remotely like it may threaten to overwhelm and engulf us. We desperately try to change the circumstances, even when there is very little we can do to change the outcome. 

We flail and fight, using up valuable time and energy in ways that are destined to fail. We endlessly stress, ruminate, avoid or distract ourselves from the choppy waters of life. And when we have done his for as long as our bodies will allow, we succumb to exhaustion and drown ourselves in the myriad of ways we do…We work too much, we drink too much, we pop a pill, we order stupid shit on Amazon. We have sex with strangers, we get trapped in the abyss of depression, we isolate, and we slowly kill ourselves out of sheer exhaustion and desperation.

But what if we, instead, learned to embrace the wisdom of surviving the riptides and trusted the turbulence. Imagine if we could allow ourselves to open up to the darkness and discomfort, even if it takes us temporarily into deeper waters and further from shore. When we stop fighting, we feel the relief that comes from surrender. When we can manage our initial panic and simply float effortlessly on our back, something amazing happens. Everything we had fought so hard to resist, in fact, offers us the very key to our salvation. So next time, remember how to survive the riptides…just let go, stop fighting, float, watch the clouds drift by. Trust the process, go deeper, feel the support beneath you. Believe in the magic and power of the tide to bring you to exactly where you need to be.

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