On Feeling Helpless – Lessons Learned on the Water

 

Helpless, powerless, stranded, fearful – no one wants to feel this way. Especially me.

“He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.” Isaiah 40:29 (NLT)

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Beautiful day on the Mulberry River

Recently, my husband and I found ourselves stuck. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, we took a canoe trip down the Mulberry River in Arkansas. It’s a stretch of river we have canoed more than once (my husband has canoed this stretch literally dozens of times over the years). The weather was perfect, and ordinarily that would mean many, many canoes on the water. For whatever reason this day, though, we were by ourselves.

It’s a surreal feeling to be totally alone on the river. When all goes well, it’s peaceful, serene and beautiful, but there’s still strange sense of unease. And when things go wrong, the solitude can quickly lead to discomfort, anxiety, even terror.

After three hours of peaceful paddling, we suddenly struck a big rock in the middle of a rapid. My husband had taught me to do the opposite of my instinct and to lean into the rock instead of away; it’s what keeps you from falling out of the boat. We were wedged against the boulder, though, and as we struggled to hold on and stay in the boat, we could hear the hull of the boat crack against the pressure of the rushing rapids. Moments later, we were both in the water.

The next minutes were crucial. We fought to stand up in the rushing water, using our paddles like crutches to help. The rocks on the river bottom were so slick that any movement of my foot felt like I would slide under. I knew that if either of us lost our footing and had to swim our way out, we’d have to again ignore our instincts by flipping over on our backs to float down the river. See, one of the greatest dangers in that environment is “foot entrapment” – getting a foot wedged in between the rocks on bottom and being pulled underwater – so “nose and toes up” becomes a safer (albeit frightening) way to float the rapids.

As my husband tightly held onto our gear and things, he slowly and carefully waded through the rocks and rushing water toward a small, rocky embankment in the middle of the river. As I watched him go, I clung to the boat’s hull as it was wedged against the rock, and I held a paddle wedged in between some rocks on the river bottom, praying to remain upright.  I couldn’t take a single step without help.

Minutes later, after leaving our gear on the rocks, he carefully made his way back to me, and he held onto me as I tearfully slid around the boat’s hull and over the boulder that held it in place. He helped me walk through the worst of the water until I could stand on my own using only my paddle as a brace. As I waded toward the rocks in the middle of the river, he slowly headed back to try and dislodge the boat.

When I made it to the rocks, I sat down and looked around. There was no earth – only rocks and tree limbs sticking out of the water, and there was rushing water on all sides of us.

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While it looks like shoreline, these rocks and limbs were just sticking out of the middle of the river. The water was on all sides of us and moving quickly.

 

My phone was in a dry bag clipped to my life jacket, so I got it out and scrambled to find our GPS location on the map and took a screen shot. I was grateful to have enough cellular signal such that I could post what was happening. I feared that the boat would be impossible to move or so damaged it wouldn’t float, and before either of us braved trying to swim through the rapids and then hike out, I wanted to ensure that someone would know where we had become stranded and where we were headed.

I posted a message on Facebook just before 7 pm, then tucked the phone back into my dry bag and clipped it back on my life jacket as my husband slowly made his way back to the rock embankment with the boat. The boat! I had never been so happy to see a canoe. Thankfully, somehow he had been able to dislodge it, and while it was damaged and leaking, it was still floating.  We dragged the boat to the safest spot we could reach, got back in, and got back on the water.

It took over an hour to finish paddling out and make it to Campbell Cemetery, where my husband’s vehicle was parked. In the hours before we wrecked and the subsequent hour we spent paddling out, we never saw another boat on the water; we had been completely alone.  And in those moments when I sat on the rock alone watching him struggle to free the boat, I felt completely powerless. There was water all around us, and the sun was getting lower every second. If he got into trouble, I wasn’t sure I could make it to him (or vice versa), and I couldn’t envision how we could get through the water to make it to shore to try and hike out. If we had to swim out, I feared the rocks would either trap or injure one or both of us. All I could do was sit there helplessly and pray.

All I could do was pray.

Just before dark, we pulled the boat from the water, made our way to the truck, and posted that we were safe at last. We also very gratefully changed into dry clothes and realized that the only casualty of the whole ordeal was a bit of (repairable) damage to the canoe, one empty can koozie that had floated away, and a twisted ankle from when I fell once trying to make my way to the rocks.  We were lucky and blessed to be safe.

 

The chaos on the river that day brought many lessons to my mind, starting with my husband’s reminder to lean into the rock instead of away from it. Isn’t it so common that we want to lean away from the toughest things in our lives? Sadness, fear, grief, shame – each are obstacles which I struggle to avoid. Sometimes I deny they exist at all. I lean as far away as I can, never confronting them directly, an action which does exactly what happened on the river – it swiftly dumps me into the abyss. Once I’m there, I can’t take a single step without help.

When I instead “lean into the rock” by trusting God and relying on Him to help me, only then can I make my way to safety. It’s slow sometimes, and it’s definitely not always my comfort zone, but it gets me there in one piece.

“As you come to him, the living Stone — rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…”
1 Peter 2:4-5 (NIV)

As I drove home, I thought a lot about how it felt, sitting there on that rock. I detest the sense that I can’t handle things alone. I prefer to be self-reliant and hate asking for help almost as much as I hate admitting that I hate asking for help.  But I couldn’t handle it alone. No one could. We had to stay calm, lean on each other, and trust God to guide us out of the water.

“Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”
Psalm 107:28-29 (ESV)

 

As I crawled into bed that night, I continued to think about that sense of weakness and powerlessness I felt, sitting on those rocks with nothing but rushing water on all sides. Even typing the words still makes my heart race. But I know that neither my weakness nor my powerlessness are too much for God, because He uses them to draw me ever closer to Him.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
2 Corinthians 12:9 (NIV)

 

 

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