My lips were getting parched and the sting of the sun on my arms made it apparent I needed to find shelter soon from the scorching temperatures. Some time earlier my daughter had cautioned me I was getting sunburned so the plan had been to make our way to the umbrella and pack up for the day. But then I heard my friend David's statement of surprise.
“Looks like that man is swimming out to that boat!” he announced as he leaned forward in his chair.
It took a few moments for me to sight him, but then the small splashing figure of a man headed for the sailboat anchored about 300 yards out in the ocean came into focus. We both watched in amazement as he left others playing and riding the waves behind and launched out into the deep waters, seemingly directed to one goal, reaching the boat we'd been told had been there for 3 weeks.
The two of us tossed questions back and forth about the plight of someone making such a daring move especially since it was after 5 pm and no lifeguards were on duty at this point. “Do you think he has any kind of flotation device with him?” “What will it feel like if we see him go under and we have no way of doing anything to help?” And then David had a revelation as we overheard some of the comments of a group of people behind us. “I bet he's doing it on a dare,” David confirmed as I
almost simultaneously heard someone in the group behind us laughing as he announced, “He's actually going to do it!”
We couldn't believe our eyes as we peered out over the ocean to see this man veering to the right and perhaps being drawn by the current away from his destination. Our plan to leave the sand and sun behind was forgotten. We joined all the late afternoon inhabitants of the beach, watching the only sign of life, the man's head just above the water and small splashing motions, letting us know he was still alive and on his mission. More questions were exchanged between us. “How far do you think it is?” and “What if he can't get on the boat and he's too tired to swim back?”
I've never witnessed something so filled with risk and almost carrying a death wish as we discussed the possibilities of disaster just between the two of us. At this point the man had no identity, no face or connection but that was not to be the case for long. About twenty minutes into the mystery man's journey, we became aware of a young woman we'd met earlier in the week, talking to a couple nearby. I'd personally spoken to her about my fears of the ocean and she had responded with her own story of having almost drowned once as a teen. Finding out it was her husband so far from shore made the experience all the more real.
“He did it on a dare,” she stated with little to no emotional response, followed by “ He does this kind of thing all the time.” I remember thinking what my own response might be if someone I loved were barely visible on the shore and no real help available if something were to go wrong. I thought of their two beautiful children and said a prayer for his safety. Cash and a case of beer were to be his reward for making it back to his family. This young woman's flatline emotional response is still giving me pause to think almost a week later.
After he'd been in the water quite some time, he climbed onto the end of the boat and then immediately dropped back into the water and began making his way back. Nearly an hour later, as people stood all along the beach, anxiously awaiting his return, we observed two lifeguards heading out to rescue what we could only guess was one exhausted young man. As we joined others walking towards a police vehicle, David and I found his wife walking alongside us. “He could get arrested for this,” David said without any sign of judgment, only stating a fact. It was at this point, we saw a quite different response from his wife as she took off running.
I'm happy to report he was unharmed and in apparently good condition after the incident but must admit it was disarming to see officers handcuffing him and taking him to the waiting vehicle nearby. Bystanders were all abuzz as we made our way back to pack up our belongings. It became clear that everyone seemed to have thoughts and opinions about this young man's risk taking adventure as I listened to the chitter chatter coming from small groups of people all along the way.
The next morning, I learned from his wife he'd spent the night in jail and appeared before a judge early that morning. Personally, I was left with many thoughts and emotions as I observed his beautiful family together on the beach the next few days. It simply wasn't something I could dismiss with no further consideration. What would persuade someone to do something so dangerous? Perhaps he'd won the approval of the friends from whom he'd accepted the dare and even claimed his reward for making his round trip to the boat and back. Popular opinion was perhaps leaned more in the direction of my own thinking that it was a foolish thing to do, taking the chance of leaving his family fatherless. But there seemed to be something deeper God wanted me to notice as I thought about it over the next four days.
God often speaks to me through pictures and this became a clear picture to me of something He has been showing me most recently in my own life. Seeking the approval of others can be like swimming out into the depths of the ocean, both risky and extremely exhausting. Just when you think you've appeased one group of people and are awaiting your reward, you hear the twitter of another group, who holding another opinion, awaits your approval seeking response. You may feel you've reached the destination of acceptance and finally feel you can rest but you must jump back into the deep waters and continue to swim or face the disapproving stares of those you are seeking to please.
I'm pretty sure I won't ever forget the scene I observed that day. While I am still amazed at the calm, collected way in which this young woman spoke of her young husband's experience, I also won't forget the face of one of the children of this young man's group of friends. “He's getting arrested!” she shouted as she ran first one way and then the other. Alarm was written all over her face. As I meditated on the significance of what God wanted to show me, I realized there is great fear and confusion involved in seeking the approval of man. There is also great bondage and the judgment of others seems to be a given. One can have the temporary approval of someone one day, only to lose it the next.
As I looked back at my pictures from our vacation, I stared at the picture of the sailboat, anchored out from the shore in the middle of an afternoon thunderstorm. I thanked God that He would use this situation I witnessed as a reminder of what He has been teaching me. I thanked Him for saving this young man from his own decision to take a dare and anything negative it created. I asked Him to save me from my propensity to seek the approval of others and to anchor me in the assurance that I have His approval. He reminded me there is no need to exhaust myself trying to win the approval of man as He is the only judge that matters. His mercy was obvious in this man's case as he was released and able to spend the remainder of his vacation with his young family.
Today I am thanking God that no matter how deep the disapproval of man might be, He will always approve of me and be the anchor that holds me steady in this life.