Drowning is a powerful metaphor. Humans seem to have an affinity for water even though we are not, by nature, aquatic (crackpot evolutionary theories aside). Most settlements are near running water, supposedly for practical reasons of transport or hydration, but, face it, we love to play in the water. We adore the sound of rushing water. We love the glint of sunlight on waves and ripples. We bathe, sometimes for the simple joy of feeling wet all over.

So when someone tells you that they are drowning, it stirs a strong response, doesn’t it? Even if it’s a metaphor, like they are drowning in work, or drowning in sorrow, It immediately brings a superposition of images and concepts, calls to mind feelings of sinking, of suffocation, of thrashing about, feeling resistance but unable to grab anything solid or secure. The colors that spring to mind are deceptive and therefore ironic: instead of the universal danger signal of warm firey reds or oranges, it’s cool blues and greens, peaceful, calming, encouraging relaxation and acceptance even as life escapes from the body in silver bubbles of air and the lungs fill with cold and possibly salty liquid.

Sinking, not rising. We associate rising with flying, and with heaven, and with birds and freedom. But sinking is normally connected to the earth, to both cold clay and the burning pain of hell. A sink is where we empty out containers, wash our hands of dirt and filth. A sink’s center is a drain, where the flow takes what is deposited and whisks it away. We sink money into a project, usually a bad or failed project that has become a colossal waste of time. Likewise, we sink into the sea, drowning amidst water, the stuff of life.

If someone is drowning, it requires a specific set of skills or tools to rescue them. Rescue is not something everyone can attempt. Despite our universal love of playing in water, not everyone can swim; and not everyone can swim strongly enough to support both themselves and a panicked friend. We have special jobs for those who have trained for just such a rescue, and because of their training and the specialized, romantic nature of their occupations, they seem to be among the most beautiful people around. Lifeguards, we call them, their sole purpose that of rescue, a specific kind of rescue that only someone who has overestimated their own abilities requires.

If someone is drowning but a heroic trained guardian of life is not available and our own skills are insufficient to provide rescue by ourselves, sometimes we can avail ourselves of the tools of rescue. Almost every tool associated with drowning rescue has life as it’s prefix. Life preserver, lifeline, life jacket. Here, often, we find the angry reds and oranges again inverted in meaning, becoming life-giving, life restoring. We toss out the tools, but the drowning victim must still reach out and take what is offered and make use of it, before it all balances again and the would-be rescuer and the would-rather-not-be-drowner can again meet in the middle, balance restored.