Monster on the Beach or Bodies in the Water

Apr 21, 2022

I came up with this story a number of years ago. Every time I share it, I watch relief wash over those client’s faces who struggle with setting boundaries and saying “no”. They finally have words to describe the incredible pressure and shame they face when given the chance to help someone…or not. I would love to hear how the story impacts you! You can email me at: [email protected]


Imagine that you decide to go for a walk by yourself through Saugatuck Dunes State Park. You don’t want to deal with a lot of foot traffic so you take the south trail all the way to the beach. It’s a bit of a hike, but you’re feeling up for it. Along the way, you are looking all around, noticing the leaves dancing in the wind, the slope of the dunes, the low din of the waves as you make progress toward Lake Michigan. Finally, you summit the last hill and have a clear view of the water…and you notice something. A dark object out in the middle of the waves.

Curious, you make your way through the sand and beach grass to get a closer look. Slowly, the object comes into focus and you realize it’s a person out in the water. It quickly becomes clear that this person is struggling to swim back to shore. Your heart starts pounding and your palms begin to sweat as you see the swimmer losing their battle. Heavy on your mind is the fact that you barely know how to swim. Your thoughts splinter back and forth between your three options. Do you dive in to try and save them, but likely just end up with two bodies in the water? Do you keep yourself alive and just watch the swimmer die? Or do you call for help? The obvious answer jumps to mind. Call for help!

Quickly, you look up and down the beach. No one in sight. You shout as loud as you can. No one responds. The cold fingers of reality tighten around your throat – it’s just you and the swimmer…who is now struggling to even keep their head above water.

Like a petulant child, your mind demands you choose between the remaining two options. Help, but likely die in the process, or walk away?

What will you do?

Take a moment to consider: what if, in that story, you decided to turn your back on the swimmer and walk away? What kind of heartless monster would that make you? Would you ever stop feeling guilty for just letting that person die when, technically, you could have done something?

Many of us experience a similar high-stakes pressure in real life, except it’s not contained to only such extreme circumstance. Against our will, the pressure grips us virtually every time we see someone struggling, or in pain, and we could help them. Regardless of emotional cost to us, our current bandwidth, or lack of life balance, the intense pressure of the “I ought to help” pushes us into the water anyway. We dare not become the selfish monster who says, “no”.

When it comes to helping others, if it feels like your choices are between “monster on the beach or bodies in the water”, know that (1) you are not alone and (2) the way you feel actually makes a lot of sense. With such intense consequences as these, who wouldn’t struggle mightily with boundaries?

The key to moving forward is doing the work necessary to both know and experience that you are not alone on that beach. Whether it’s getting vulnerable with others about your fear, starting therapy with a counselor, or courageously risking a “no” anyway – do what you must to allow moments, experiences, where you can see the persistence of your goodness even when you sometimes choose not to help.