Swimming with the undertow: How to start forgiving the unforgivable

August 19th, 2020

Jeff’s college girlfriend Maryanne had made the minimum number of repairs on a long-abandoned, battered Buick Skylark to get it running again. Sort of. So the three of us thought it was a great idea to drive it to Florida for spring break.

We camped at an oceanside state park outside Daytona. A stiff wind and churning surf greeted us as we sauntered down to the beach on our first day.

Maryanne and I spotted a sandbar about half a football field’s distance from the shoreline, and we all started wading out toward it. When the water reached up to our waists, Jeff cautiously dropped back. Maryanne and I pushed on.

We were chest deep when an unusually strong undertow grabbed us. The force of the current pulling us away from shore shocked us. For just a second we panicked.

An undertow is not the same thing as a rip tide. The latter can drag you out to sea and drown you. An undertow sweeps you along for a short distance and spits you out. Unless you’re a small child or a poor swimmer, an undertow won’t kill you. But when you’re surprised by a powerful one, it sure feels like it will.

The first impulse many people feel in those moments is to fight the current. That can make things worse. As counterintuitive as the advice may seem, experts recommend that you swim with the undertow until you feel it release you.

As I shuffled back to the tent, I thought of a passage from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Garp and his wife Helen had taken their kids to the beach. They told the boys to watch out for the undertow. But their young son had misunderstood and began looking for a dangerous sea creature: the Under Toad.

Irving writes,

[The] Under Toad became their code phrase for anxiety…. When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy — when depression had moved in overnight — they said to each other, “The Under Toad is strong today.” (p. 408)

It occurred to me that my own Under Toad had been strong for a very long time, and I was afraid that it was going to kill me. I had spent loads of energy fighting it, when what I needed to do was to swim with it.

Instead of denying or trying to achieve my way out of my persistent shame, alienation and resentment, I needed to admit candidly that these were the forces pulling me from shore. It was starting to dawn on me that the Under Toad kept me in its grip as long as I fought against it. My release — and my ability to land on a peaceful shore — would only come after swimming with it.

This may sound like pop psychology to you. And that’s fine. But strictly speaking I’m talking about one of the enduring lessons of the Bible. Christians traditionally talk about spiritual practices like self-examination and forgiveness as paths to spiritual liberation and restored wholeness.

Take for instance an episode from the Joseph story in Genesis (chapters 37-50).

Years after his brothers had sold him into Egyptian slavery, Joseph had risen to the rank of second in command under Pharaoh. A famine swept the land, and those same brothers turned up begging for food.

Joseph managed to hold it together for a while. These men had degraded him, betrayed him, and tossed aside in an unimaginably cruel way. The Under Toad would have been strong for Joseph, and he initially fought against it.

Had the Under Toad merely swept him away, he would have killed or imprisoned his tormentors. Instead, he decided to swim with it.

He acknowledged his pain as his own. The text puts it this way: “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He sent his deputies and guards out of the room. “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it.” (Genesis 45:1, 2)

His liberation and healing came with a dual recognition. He put it this way to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

The wounds wrought by their hate still ached within him. And yet God’s love was healing those very wounds. He faced a choice: exact revenge and tumble out of control in reaction to their hate or do the hard, honest work of reconciliation and claim the freedom of God’s healing love.

Joseph chose love. He chose freedom. In other words, he swam with the Under Toad.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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