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When Someone Is Drowning: Help, Hinder, or Walk by?

By Karen Austin

When I am having problems managing my emotions, I sometimes cause a bit of a scene.

“* Helping Hand *” by pareeerica is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I admire introverts for their ability to keep their conflicts well hidden. But then again, my introverted friends report this downside: stuffing emotions leads to a lot of trouble with the upper spine or an upset GI track.  Some of these reserved friends do process their feelings in a productive way. They might write in journals, garden, exercise, play music, or work on an art project. Sometimes they process by talking with one trusted friend. But they rarely make a scene in public.

I too often take the opportunity to display my emotional conflicts in small or even large group settings.  After the fact, I must deal with the shame and to on an apology tour.  Ugh.

Despite appearances, I do try to self-regulate.

Witness the four decades of receipts that I have for therapy, self-help books, gym memberships, and car maintenance (gas, oil, and repairs) which allow me to travel to and from church and the temple. In addition, I have paid college tuition for undergraduate and graduate classes related to ontology (questions of being) and epistemology (questions of knowing).

I tell my husband, “I’m trying!” And he replies, “Yes, you are, you are trying my patience.” But then I laugh (most of the time).

I am a teacher in several venues. I have been my whole adult life. After months of lockdown, people want to return to in-person teaching.  Granted, it is hard to teach nursery via Zoom. And two of the four university classes I teach this fall are in person. Many university students are “all zoomed out,” so more sections are offered in person.  However, Delta cases are still high in my area, but vaccination rates and the masking use are very low. So these are real concerns for me.

This fall, moving back to in-person teaching pushed my anxiety to the point that I was very manic at church and at the university.  Why can’t I wait to go home to be visibly agitated?

When I’m distressed in public, I find that people responded to me in one of three ways: they try to help me, they criticize me directly or indirectly by gossiping about me (which gets back to me all too frequently), or they walked away.  I can deal better with strangers walking away, but the more intimately I know the person, the more acutely their detachment stings.


But upon reflection, I am more upset in recognizing that I make the same poor choices when I see people in distress. People might have an acute need of mind, body, psyche, or soul, but I sometimes choose to respond in less-than-helpful ways. Or I try too hard to rescue them and end up drowning them with my “good intensions.” (Can you spell “Jesus Complex”?)

Ideally, we can all offer each other compassion–fueled not by human strengths but by the pure love of Jesus Christ–while allowing each person the space to work out their salvation before the throne of God—in their own time and at their own pace.

Walking Away

I do not have to help everyone every time with everything.

Mosiah 4:27 offers this counsel:

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order.

If I have “no gas in my tank” when I witness a person in distress, I  can do more than walk away.

I do have the choice to direct other resources to them, resources available on heaven and earth. I do not always do that. I might say, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” If I can recognize when others detach from me in a mean-spirited way, surely those in distress must sense my scornful attitude. And who wants to be regarded as a circus monkey? My body language can communicate this condescending attitude, so I need to develop a way to express love and compassion even if I cannot at that time drop everything to meet another’s needs.

My friend Sarah is very good at articulating compassion by saying to me and others, “I wish I had a magic wand. This is a difficult thing. I am cheering you on, and I love you.”  My friend Jan often says, “Women can do hard things with divine assistance.” She often provides mortal help to complement the divine assistance.

The university students I teach are frequently in distress due to the pressures of the pandemic. I can offer silent prayers because my formal role limits me to teaching my students,  not overtly ministering to them.  Instead, I try to regularly mention all of the available student support services.

Even if we are too limited in our resources to offer substantial help, we might have enough strength most days to offer tiny kindnesses (H/T Rachel Hunt Steenblick). For example, I’ve seen other women offer very brief words of support to women trying to manage crying children in public. “You’re doing a great job!”  This does so much more good than shouting, “What’s wrong with that kid? Does she need a nap, a snack or a spanking?”  Oh, that’s not helpful at all.


I have the hardest time when people yell at me, criticize me, reject me, or gossip about me. Who wouldn’t? However, I have been a meanie beanie at times to other people. I’m trying to absorb the following observation in ways that change my behavior and attitude. Observed: All too often, people attribute misbehavior in others to character flaws: “Oh, they are lazy, stupid, crazy, or evil.” However, when we are critics to our fellow beings, we tend to excuse our own misbehavior as situational: “I was tired. I was overextended. My parents didn’t model effective coping skills.”

I’ve done this: refused to challenge myself to improve while harshly judging others.

I’m trying to recognize that when people lash out or fall apart, there is a story behind their behavior. If I were privy to that story, I would readily express compassion. I am trying to train myself to just start with the compassion without asking for the backstory.  My mother-in-law is very good about turning away wrath with a kind word (Proverbs 15:1). She always gives people the benefit of the doubt. I’m hoping to gain her skill in this peacemaking ability, but I might need to live to 140 to get there.

However, I do err on the side of seeing children in nursery as struggling due to the situation not to character flaws. Nursery children are clearly innocent, so when a child is mad or sad or “bad” (hitting others or throwing things), I might move them to “the sad mat” to give them time to calm down. And then over the next week, I think of ways to restructure the classroom environment and activities in order to avoid the problem.

I cannot hoist my gal pals up by the armpits and put them on the sad mat. However, I can express compassion when people are angry–but I might also shout “I love you!” from a safe distance.


I’m still learning how to do this.

I reflect regularly on my long-time friend Theresa from Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I called her a couple of weeks ago to confirm some details of a story her sons told me.  Apparently, Theresa had stopped her van to help a young woman wandering on the country roads. This young person was unkempt and showing clear signs of emotional distress. When I asked Theresa for details about helping this young woman, she went silent. Then in a soft voice she asked, “Which one?”

See. That’s the thing about Theresa. She has a gift for helping people. And she does so in such a way that I often wonder how she has the resources to feed, clothe, transport, and house so many people as frequently as she does. When I was her neighbor, I told her that I wanted to make her a quilt depicting the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Why? That is the defining parable of her life.

But we cannot all be Theresa every day all of the time. But we can be helpers to some people some of the time in ways that align with our own talents and spiritual gifts.

While I wonder which passage of scripture my friends might put on a quilt for me, I can try to use my embarrassing human frailty (mismanaged anxiety) as an occasion to reflect on the power of the gospel in my life and the lives of others. And when people are hurtful during my times of distress, I do not have to feel angry or betrayed. Instead, I can transform that pain (beauty from ashes).

My own suffering from life’s many challenges is often an invitation to feel compassion. So maybe I can improve my ability to help when I can, walk away with love if I must, but to never, ever hurt a person–even if their distress is pronounced.

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

4 thoughts on “When Someone Is Drowning: Help, Hinder, or Walk by?”

  1. How do I say this and sound coherent. You are the kind of friend that I have always felt had my back. While you sometimes have a need to share and find reassurance, you are at the same time helping others gain insight. I have never had a conversation with you that didn’t end with you giving reassurance, expressing hope and gratitude. Those conversations were never a burden nor did they feel like a one sided act of service. You are a teacher and even in your most challenging times you take opportunity to teach in an uplifting, encouraging manner. I think you should acknowledge that you have never asked for help or just hoped for support without providing help yourself. Miss both of you guys.

  2. You said everything in the last paragraph, we only learn compassion through suffering. I wish we could learn it another way. I do appreciate the compassion I have learned een though I had to go through so much to learn it.

  3. You said everything in the last paragraph, we only learn compassion through suffering. I wish we could learn it another way. I do appreciate the compassion I have learned even though I had to go through so much to learn it.

  4. Jim (from my life in the 2010s plus) and Kim (from my life in the 1970s and 1980s plus): Thank you for your kind comments. It's a bit of an adventure to live in 9 different states over 60 years. However, this means that I lose having a lot of great people in the weekly traffic of my face-to-face life. You both are full of good works, and may God bless you both with every needful thing, particularly during the pandemic with it's challenges and opportunities. HUGS and HIGH FIVES! KDA


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