What I Learned From Almost Drowning


Swimming pools were a rare event in my childhood, but one particular pool stands out in my mind. A party was in full swing, adults flung all over the area, lounging or talking. Kids were largely left to their own devices.

With no formal swimming lessons, I was commanded to stay in the shallow end. Which I did. Sort of. Except that, even then, I knew “shallow” was a relative term, so I held onto the edge of the pool and inched along it. Some might call it pride. Girls were probably involved. Either way, I was nearly to the ladder at the far end of the pool, the deep end, when my hand slipped.

Just the one, but as I surged to re-grip the tiles, my remaining hand slipped.

Just like that, my head slipped below the water’s surface.

I remember straining, kicking, wracking my body to climb the water that seemed to pull me down. But what I remember most clearly is sticking my hand out of the water as high as I could. I was pleading with all my being that my dad would see me, that someone, anyone, would save me.

As the strength drained from my body, my arm gradually followed me into the depths. First the elbow. Then the forearm. Then my wrist. My knuckles. I remember distinctly noting when the water finally covered the last tip of my longest finger.

I gave my soul to God in that moment. I remember thinking, “This is it. I’m dying young. Alone at the bottom of a pool.”

Suddenly I wasn’t praying that my dad would save me.

I was praying that God would save me. I didn’t know how. I didn’t honestly care, but my whole being was fixed on him. “God help me!” My prayer was frantic, determined, at first. But as I sank further, my prayer drifted slowly into something more feeble. My tiny lungs were collapsing under the strain, as was my little prayer.

Mine was a mouse’s prayer. Still, it had the same form: “God help me.”

I survived. Obviously. At the last desperate moment I felt the surrounding waters seethe. Strong arms lifted me against the water’s pressure and onto the pool’s edge. After I coughed up the swallowed water and terror, I opened my eyes and saw Dad, beleaguered but relieved, fully clothed and dripping wet.

There have been a few times in my life when I prayed that tiny prayer “God help me” with urgency.

The most recent occasion for this prayer was illness: A different form of drowning.

I suffered a health collapse so rapid that within a few short weeks, I could barely read, speak, walk, or eat. Nearly overnight, I developed unexplainable Parkinson-like tremors in my hands, head, and torso. No one knew why. It was like God plunged me into the waters and then he turned his back and walked away. He took with him the hills, the songbirds, and the sunshine slung over his shoulder.

I was left alone in the dark. Dead.

I’ve since decided that drowning is, perhaps, the best thing that ever happened to me.

If it weren’t for that specific suffering in my life, I don’t think I would know who I really was. I don’t think I would know how to pray urgently. Stripped of my ambition, professional preening, and basic animal functions, I discovered my neediness. I can try to ignore my neediness, or get through it, or conquer it, but when you’re drowning, you can’t pretend anymore.

I’m not in charge. I’m not in control. Thank God.

Drowning helped me see, finally, what God sees all the time when he looks at me.

I am a frail man. I am a needy man. I am a destitute man. I am a man who wants peace and hope and is finding them most when I embrace my neediness.

I am finding them most at the bottom of the sea.

[photo:Marcelo Braga ,Creative Commons]

  • Chris Mathews

    Great message. Love how you’ve expressed it. Thank you.

    I had a similar health collapse (mind if I steal that phrase) a few years ago. Within a month I had all the same things happen me and I know now that the experience has so affected me and my relationship with God that I’m actually thankful to have gone through it.

    BTW, hope you’re better now. What was the problem? Mine was Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus at 43. Spent 3+ months in a nursing home getting worse until I was finally diagnosed.

    Once again, thank you.

    • Ben Palpant

      Chris, thanks for asking. Yes, I am much improved but they haven’t put their finger on the cause yet. Interesting that you had similar symptoms. I’ll have to look into it. Thanks for the encouragement. Standfast.

  • http://www.eileenknowles.com Eileen

    Great post. Yes I am finding Him most when I embrace my neediness too. Love when you said this “drowning is perhaps the best thing that could have happened.” I would have to agree. It’s the Jonah moments in my life when I am most able to hear His voice. Thanks.

  • http://treasuresandtrunks.blogspot.com/ Sonia Ama

    This is good, really good. Prayers being sent out your way.

    • Ben Palpant

      Thank you, Sonia. Much appreciated.

  • Free

    Wow. I had a similar experience that I wrote about on my blog several weeks ago ( http://theway2freedom.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/crashing-waves/ ). It is in those “drowning” moments that we discover that God is always there to save us and help us when we are too weak to do anything else. Thank you for sharing & confirming what He has spoken to me!

  • Amy

    Thanks for sharing your story. God saved my brother from drowning in 1998. But instead of saving him to live longer here, God saved him from earthly struggles by welcoming him to his home in heaven. Whether in life or death, we praise Him who saves- in all kind of ways.