How do we know when to save the drowning man and when to pull back to save ourselves? Now more than ever, we have drowning people all around us. People are frightened, lost, angry, and reactionary. How do we manage caring for people when we are on solid ground or are ourselves drowning? It is hard to know the balance between helping and enabling and even harder to know when the balance tips so that we are falling into the undertow of someone else’s pathology or helplessness. It is a challenge to be a caring person and still maintain boundaries and take care of ourselves. In this parable, it is a man who is drowning, but we encounter people all along the gender spectrum who need our help, and sometimes, a bit too much.
In the exploration of those thoughts, here is a story from my “Modern Mythologies” series:
A divine accord
By some means or another, Aphrodite managed to lose favor with Demeter and had, as a result, lost her Goddess powers and was rendered as helpless as a mere human. Desperate to win back her powers, she approached Demeter and asked how she might seek to atone for her misdeeds. Demeter arched one eyebrow and considered the request, knowing that she had a difficult task she needed performed and wondering if she could use Aphrodite’s atonement to her advantage..
“Fine,” Demeter said. “I have a deal for you. In this box,” she pulled out an ornate box that radiated a golden glow from the inside, “is The Essence of True Love. I took it from you when I removed your powers and my daughter, Persephone, is in the Underworld and needs it. She is with her husband for the next 6 months and left too quickly to take it with her. If she does not have true love for her husband, her stay will be unbearable. If you will take The Essence of True Love to my daughter in the Underworld, I will reinstate your Goddess powers.”
“But it will take weeks to get to the Underworld without my Goddess powers!” Aphrodite argued. “How can I do that?”
“Hey,” Demeter shrugged. “You came to me, Babe. That’s the offer. Take it or leave it.”
Correctly reading Demeter’s disinterest in negotiation, Aphrodite did not pause for another moment. “Fine. I’ll do it. Give me the box.”
Demeter carefully handed her the precious box. “Now remember,” she cautioned, “You hold The Essence of True Love in your hands. If you aren’t careful, it could be lost to the world forever.”
“I’ll be careful,” Aphrodite assured her.
“Another warning,” Demeter said. “You have one rule to follow as you travel and that is that you must not stop to save the drowning man.”
“Wha’?” Aphrodite asked.
“That’s all,” Demeter said, “Do not stop save the drowning man. Now off with you. Every moment you tarry, my daughter spends an unbearable moment with a man she does not love.”
The journey begins
Aphrodite set about her task. She traveled for many days, making her way to the Underworld. On her way, by the most serendipitous of circumstances, she encountered a young human man named Galwarth who was on a similar task. His mission was to take a message to the Boatman of the River Styx, which meant they were headed in the same direction. Since Aphrodite was missing the company of a handsome man, she invited him to join her. Over the time they traveled together, Aphrodite warmed to him. She found him to be a genial sort and hey laughed and talked for most of the way, his presence making an otherwise arduous trip much more enjoyable.
Shortly before they reached the River Styx, her traveling companion regretfully told her goodbye and explained that he had another errand to complete before he met The Boatman. He told her he would catch up to her later and that he looked forward to seeing her again. They embraced warmly, then he took his leave, with Aphrodite continuing on her journey. She rested for an evening, feeling alone and uncomfortable.
The River Styx
Later the next day, she reached the River Styx and after paying the Boatman his fee, she took his hand and he helped her into the boat, where she huddled onto the hard wooden bench that was the sole seating options. He took his place in the prow of the boat as it began to ease away from the shore, seemingly of its own accord.
The air was thick around her in this place and the fog that hung over the river carried a dark sense of foreboding that sent a shiver down her spine. She held the sacred box closer to her, hoping some of the warm glow that emanated from it would chase away the ominous feelings of dread that hung in the air around her. The fog concealed much of what she may have been able to see as they made their way down the river and for that, she was grateful. The eerie sounds that cut through the mists were terrible enough, but when she did glance over the side of the boat, she glimpsed what could have been misshapen fishes or perhaps human faces and hands moving through the water.
At last, the boat bumped against solid ground and the Boatman leapt deftly onto the shore and again extended his hand to her. She closed her eyes as she stepped onto the ground and felt her foot sink several inches into the bog. It was a swamp. She made a sound that was something of a mix between disgust and fear, but the Boatman did not look back at her. He merely stepped back into the boat and disappeared into the thick mist as if he had never been there.
A messy problem
Sighing and swearing under her breath, she began picking her way through the murky swamp, feeling her shoes fill with mud and threatening to sink into the muck with every squelchy step. It had not gone deeper than her ankles, but the swamp mud had a warm, cloying texture that repulsed her, so every step was a challenge.
As she struggled through the muck, hoping to find solid ground soon, she wondered at her own ego. Was it really worth going through all of this just to be a Goddess again? Surely, she could settle for less and be happy without divine powers and immortality. Did she really need to be worshiped as the epitome of love and desire? Was it really all that? There was no end in sight to this swamp and not knowing how much further she had to go left her debating whether it was closer to go back to the river and wait for the Boatman, who seemed to know exactly when he was needed, or keep walking.
As thoughts such as these raced through her mind and as she focused on each step to stay upright and not drop her precious cargo, she was surprised to hear, ever so faintly, someone calling her name. The fog was thinner here than it had been at the shore, but she still had to squint to see beyond her immediate surroundings. At first, the voice seemed to call from all around her, but at last she was able to discern the direction.
She made her way toward the voice, which unfortunately took her deeper into the swamp. The muck was now up to her shins and it was almost impossible to pull her legs out to take a step. It was as if the mud itself sucked her in, pulling her deeply into its embrace.
Dimly, she saw Galwarth struggling in the depths of the swamp, thrashing his arms about with the mud up to his chest.
“Aphrodite!” he gasped. “Oh, dear Aphrodite, you heard me. You’re here. Please, for the love of all that is holy, save me.”
He must have traveled as she slept on the far side of the river to get this far before her. She would need both hands to save him, of that she was certain. Regretfully, she sat the box down on a nearby tree trunk and began making her way to him. The mud eased over her knees.
“Take my hand,” she called. “Work your way toward me and take my hand.”
“I can’t,” he said. “I can’t reach you. You will have to come closer.”
She quickly glanced over her shoulder to the box. It was still on the tree trunk, but she could see that the glow had dimmed noticeably.
“Aphrodite!” he shouted. “Hurry!”
“Just come a little closer!” she called out to him. “You can do it. I will pull you out if you can just reach for me.”
She moved toward him, but felt the mud beneath her begin to give way under her feet. Soon, the swamp would have her, rendering her unable to move.
Don’t save the drowning man
“You can do it!” he shouted to her. “Just a little further. Please, save me. I’m drowning!”
His words caused her to stop abruptly and look up in shock.
She glanced at the box again and the light from within was faint, barely there at all.
Regretfully, she turned and began to make her way out of the deepest parts of the swamp, one step at a time.
“Wait!” he called after her. “Where are you going? You were almost here! Come back! You have to save me!”
“I’m sorry,” she said without looking back. “I am so sorry, but you have to save yourself. I can’t do it for you.”
As she reached the tree trunk and picked up the box, the inner glow became stronger. Tears streamed down her face as she resumed her original path. As she walked, the glow of The Essence of True Love in the box she carried became a nearly blinding beam of light.
Open the box
Before long, the ground beneath her steps became more solid and at last, she walked on a path, a real path that did not threaten to pull her under with each step. She felt weary, sad, and oh so filthy, but she kept walking, cradling the box close to her.
“You’re here!” she heard a voice exclaim. “Oh dear one, you are here!” Persephone nearly knocked her over as she threw her arms around her and held her in a tight embrace.
“And wow, you are a mess!”
Aphrodite handed Persephone the box her mother had sent to her, but Persephone raised one hand to block her.
“No,” she said. “You open it. You did the hard work to get it to me.”
Enough love for all
Aphrodite took a deep breath and opened the box. As she did, The Essence of True Love flooded the Underworld, pouring over Persephone, her husband, Aphrodite, and the seeping upward into the world above them. On the surface above them, long dead flowers infused with light and love and bloomed with splendiferous color. Skies that were dark and gray gave way to flooding blue with golden sunlight streaming down. The brown, brittle grass turned lushly green and the air awakened with promise.
Persephone led Aphrodite to a shimmering pond and she gratefully slipped into the water, washing the mud and muck from her body, from her clothes, from her hair, feeling the clumps of anguish and sadness wash away from her. As she arose from the water, clean and pure, she felt her Goddess powers wash over her and consume her, stronger than they had ever done before.
How had she ever doubted her right as a Goddess? Why did she deny it because she had to work hard to get it back? She was a GODDESS and walked in her destiny.
And no, she never knew what happened to Galwarth, but she did know that a key component to The Essence of True Love, which she would forever more carry in her heart and spirit, was that sometimes we have to let go of our need to save those we love and empower them to save themselves.
The moral(s) of the story for TLDR* purposes
- Be kind to people, by all means. This we must do, but we cannot forget who we are and lose ourselves in the process.
- We can become so mired in the problems of others or in trying to save them, that we can be sucked in and drown in their situation.
- If we collapse into the world of and problems of those we love, The Essence of True Love can be lost forever.
- Ultimately, we must allow others to save themselves, we cannot do it for them
- Stay on task if you are on a path to better yourself and do not let the drowning people around you pull you down with them.
- You are a goddamned God/dess and don’t let anyone (least of all yourself or the hard work) convince you otherwise
*Too Long, Didn’t Read