Let’s Lower the Stakes of Choosing Kindness
Acts of kindness often involve giving something up. A place in line, the last donut, a prized parking spot. Everybody wins. The bestower enriches their soul, the receiver enjoys the gift, and witnesses are inspired to become bestowers, making the world a little better for everyone. But what about an act of kindness that might mean giving up your life?
Just before our son Ethan and I were overcome by the waves while swimming in Lake Michigan, Al Keating ambled onto the beach from his summer cottage nearby. It was the first time he had gone to the beach since his daughter Valerie died two years before. As he said a prayer of thanks for the beauty of the lake, he noticed us struggling in the water. Other people around him thought we were just playing. Still, something wasn’t right, he thought. He searched in vain for a life ring or life jacket. Grabbing a boogie board, he entered the surf, which quickly blew the board down the beach. Without something that floats, Al’s rescue attempt suddenly became a much riskier venture.
Many bystanders who attempt rescues in open water end up becoming victims themselves. Lifeguards fare better not just because they are excellent swimmers in great physical condition. With currents in Lake Michigan reaching a speed of five miles per hour, more than twice that of an Olympic swimmer, it is not surprising that two-thirds of drowning victims are strong swimmers. The difference maker is not just that lifeguards are trained to find ways out of dangerous conditions, but that they also use specially designed floatation devices that enable them to carry someone (and themselves) to safety.
Despite Al’s valiant efforts, our sweet, funny, beautiful Ethan drowned that day just shy of his tenth birthday, setting in motion excruciating emotional pain vectors. People experience grief differently, and their experience changes over time. For example, the intensity of the pain, its duration, its impact on one’s relationships or behavior varies depending on the person, the nature of the loss, one’s role in the loss, one’s community. There are countless other factors one can figure into the equation. But the basic fact is that the loss is like an explosion that propels emotional pain out in many directions. The vectors are sometimes very close, and they can follow similar trajectories, but they are never on the exact same line of travel.
My wife Janet and I, for example, have similar styles of grieving. We are open with each other about our feelings about the loss, share our grief with others, and honor Ethan’s birthday and the anniversary of his death, among other shared practices.
From the beginning, however, we were moving on different vectors, because of our respective roles in his death. We both felt responsible, because we made bad choices that day that put him at unnecessary risk. But I was with him in the water and was unable to save him. As his primary caregiver, I helped him through major health and developmental challenges and always had his back. Yet in that one crucial moment, I failed him. Moreover, when I miraculously survived after several minutes under water, I assumed it was because I sacrificed him to save myself and that he died alone while I found my way to safety. I had not just failed him; I thought that I had killed him. I was in my own personal circle of hell.
I was so grateful that Al tried to save him. What an act of bravery and kindness. His valiant effort expresses the belief that we are all connected and responsible for one another’s welfare.
That Al himself had almost drowned in the attempt was deeply disturbing for us. Our poor decisions did not just put Ethan into harm’s way. It might have also ended the life of this kind, loving man. His family and friends were already struggling with grief over the loss of Valerie and needed him desperately. His death would have produced a bumper crop of emotional pain vectors.
On a more personal level, not only did Al pull me from the water when I finally surfaced, but he also held the key to my personal torture chamber. I remembered very little of the incident. In fact, I had no memory of Al at all, even today, which indicates how far gone I was by the time he reached us. Meeting Al and hearing his fuller account of the drowning released me from my prison cell. I still felt responsible for Ethan’s death and remained wracked with grief. But at least I knew that I had not sacrificed Ethan to save myself. Ethan died in Al’s arms, which was comforting to me, because I couldn’t bear the thought that he died alone. After Al passed Ethan back to me, all three of us went underwater. Al recalls how he made it to the surface. I do not.
Let’s return to Al on the beach. What would have been the likely effect on Al if he had decided not to enter the water? He would be spared the trauma of almost drowning himself, and of holding Ethan as he slipped away. Yet he still might have been traumatized. Standing helplessly, watching someone drown, can also be emotionally damaging.
This was the case with Halle Quezada Rasmussen, who witnessed a drowning of a preteen girl and the near drowning of her close friend. The event shook her to her core and continues to haunt her. Determined to spare others the trauma she experienced, she set to work advocating for water safety and was instrumental in bringing about legislation requiring that life rings be placed on Illinois beaches. This was a huge change. Al, for example, thought that he might have saved Ethan if he had a proper floatation device. Moreover, if he had one, he might not have almost drowned himself. The week after the life rings were installed in Chicago, for example, a young man was saved by someone throwing him one from a pier. The bystander was spared that terrible choice both Al and Halle faced: risk their owns lives by attempting a rescue or stand by helplessly and watch someone drown. Halle’s efforts provided another option for those choosing kindness. Throw them a life ring.
Halle and her fellow advocates didn’t stop there. They pushed for legislation mandating water safety education in Illinois schools. Drowning is the leading cause of death among children aged 1–4 and the second leading cause of death among those aged 5–14. Many of these deaths are preventable with greater awareness and proper precautions. Teaching kids about water safety would enable them to think like lifeguards, who prevent drownings by recognizing potential hazards and guiding people away from them. We would be empowering kids to take better care of themselves and of others as well. Janet and I wish we had learned this as children. We would have been better parents.
This legislation has the potential to bring about what Dave Benjamin of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project calls a “culture of safety,” where we are all work to ensure one another’s safety. The remarkable actions of a young English girl, Tilly Smith, are an excellent example of the great advance this might mean for public welfare. While on vacation with her family in Thailand, ten-year-old Tilly noticed unusual wave patterns at the beach. She had learned in her geography class two weeks before that this indicated a tsunami was coming. Her parents scoffed, but she persisted, finally convincing them and hotel officials to clear the beach. Her warning saved one hundred lives during the disastrous tsunami of 2004. Think of all emotional pain vectors the loss of those one-hundred lives would have set in motion, if Tilly had not warned people of the danger they faced.
I thought of Tilly when Halle showed me a video taken shortly before the drowning she witnessed. She pointed to a gap in the waves that escaped her notice before. After she educated herself about lake conditions, she realized that the gap might have indicated the presence of a rip current. Maybe things would have been different if the kids present that day had learned in school about the science of the Great Lakes, as Tilly had learned about the science of oceans.
Imagine a different scenario. “Hey Mom, Dad, look how the waves stop there and start up again over there. We learned in school that might be a rip current. Did you know that? We probably shouldn’t go in there.”
Water is primal. The sound of waves lapping against the shore stirs something deep inside me. Immersing myself in water is profoundly restorative. Water is also powerful and must be respected. All of us, young and old, can enjoy water safely, if we work together with proper training and precautions.
A documentary produced by the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, Danger Amidst the Beauty, recounts Ethan’s drowning on August 16th, 2010. It was based on my memoir, The Fun Master. A Father’s Journey of Love, Loss, and Learning to Live One Day at a Time (SparkPress 2022).