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The Undertoad

October 24, 2012

There’s this great detail in the novel, “The World According to Garp” by John Irving that describes a misunderstanding of the word “undertow” by the protagonist’s (Garp’s) toddler son.

When Garp explains to the boy the qualities and potential dangers of an ocean undertow, the boy thinks his dad says underTOAD. Garp and his wife find their son’s description to be a poignant one, and from that moment on it becomes a part of their marital language. If either one is feeling a particular sort of sadness they will say, “I feel the Undertoad coming again.”

As I write this, I am sitting in my parent’s living room on a week-long visit to the place I grew up; a place where all my closest, life-long friends still live. These visits are intense, emotional affairs. It’s always a mad dash to make up for the many months apart, and the ones to follow, by cramming in as many tears as possible (whether from laughter or pain) into the span of a few days. It’s the best form of therapy I know. On this trip in particular, it feels as though the pain-tears are winning. It feels like the Undertoad is here and pulling many of my friends out to sea.

It is with the intimacy of face-to-face conversation that the true nature and depth of the Undertoads are revealed. A couple of friends are struggling with addictions in the family. Another one’s teenage daughter has pushed her away indefinitely. Another is having a hard time paying bills and still another is losing a parent to cancer. I am always surprised at how much I don’t know considering how close we are, and how long many have suffered in relative silence.

Lately, it appears that it’s only when someone is already too tired to fight the currents and are lost, that we realize how far they’ve been carried off shore and how close they are to divorce, rehab, or worse.

I am often overwhelmed at the depth of pain that is drifting just below the surface when I come home, my own included. We are all so busy in our daily lives, many of us with small children, others with full-time jobs, things that have limited our communication to Facebook and text messages. I love technology for this reason, it’s ease of keeping up, but I also hate it for the very same reason.

I hate it because Facebook is like watching someone’s highlight reel. It’s pictures of toes in the sand, clever quips and backdoor brags, when just off camera, there’s always an Undertoad.

It makes sense, really. Who wants to be depressing and dramatic on Facebook for everyone to see? Most people are too proud; me included. But ever so often, I catch a genuine, desperate plea for help, or condolence followed by outpouring of love and support. To me, that’s a nod to our collective Undertoads, and the fact that we’re all willing to throw a life-vest to a fellow drifter.

Call me grandiose or idealistic, but it has been my secret aspiration to fix the whole world (or at least the people I love). I used to dream about winning the lottery and doling it out to my friends and family, just to watch many of their stresses vanish in an instant… if only for an instant.

But lately, via my own Undertoad, I am realizing that this is a pointless aspiration; that I will never be able to fix the whole world because I can’t even fix me. It is all at once a suffocating, hole-of-a-thought, and also, one ringed with blue-sky freedom.

You see, I know that people (including me) will always suffer and I will always feel a tremendous amount of pain because of it. But my only job – my measly, simple, non-grandiose gesture – is to be with them in that moment, and share and shed as many tears in laughter and pain as possible… and then pray.

That’s it. No fixing, just loving and praying.

I do wish I lived closer. I still wish I could fix every problem. I wish that people would actually call before they are pulled under and out to sea; before they are already too tired to help themselves; before they are so far out that the only option is a foreign shore.

There’s no need to suffer alone because we’re all in this ocean together. Despite what Facebook says, it’s not all beaches and sunshine.

I also wish we would all acknowledge the Undertoad more often, because my idealistic heart would swim into dangerous waters for you… and I also know there are enough life-vests to go around.

All you have to do is ask.

Shannon Lell is a fallen corporate ladder climber turned writer and stay-at-home mother living near Seattle. She writes introspective pieces on personal and social issues at Shannon Lell.

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