Breathing Underwater

By Keith Miller | November 24, 2010

Keith, you write a lot about how a certain kind of small group has helped you learn how to face and deal with real temptations, fears, inadequacies and other painful areas of living.  How can you do that?  I’m afraid to trust other people enough to be honest about my real stuff for fear they will reject me or shame me for being like I am.  But I’m not happy and life is getting a little out of control.  No one is happy with me—including me.  And I feel like I’m over my head and sinking somehow.

Thanks for your honesty.  I had to feel like my relationships were bad and I couldn’t see my way out before I’d risk a group where people were being honest about real problems they were having.

When you ask what these groups provide spiritually that helps me the most in my own spiritual growth, the word that popped into my mind was “oxygen.”  Why “oxygen,” I wondered?  A picture flashed into my mind from more than fifty years ago.  I was in a commercial diving boat off the coast of Acapulco, Mexico, going out for my first diving experience, using oxygen tanks.  The night before I had ingested too much hot Mexican food and probably too much tequila (this was before I quit drinking 25 years ago).   I had gotten sick and thrown up intermittently most of the night.  But since we had paid a lot of money up front for our share of the boat, instruction crew, and equipment, I was determined to go out anyway, even thought I was very queasy.

As I recall, the crew didn’t speak much English, so I couldn’t tell them about my queasy stomach, etc.  (Only those who have experienced such behavior and consequences will understand my concern about getting into deep water and “losing” my oxygen mouthpiece.)  But not wanting to appear to be afraid—which I was—I tried to look cool as I watched them demonstrate how to use the diving equipment.

A couple of the first-time divers went over the side first and disappeared.  As my turn came, I was filled with mixed feelings. I did not want anyone to know how afraid I was that I’d get down twenty plus feet and somehow my oxygen mouthpiece would pop out or malfunction—or I’d barf it out and drown.  But I was more afraid that the other guys in our group would know that I was that afraid.

The man in front of me went over the side.  After only a few seconds he surfaced, choking as if he were dying and hurling salt water out of his lungs through his mouth and nose.  After they’d dragged him out, it was my turn.  Looking as cool as I could, I went over—and down, down, down into the water—filled with fear of what to do if I lost my oxygen.  But to my surprise, it was beautiful down there.  I was fascinated with the schools of brightly colored fish darting around me.  Then I saw a man lose his oxygen mouthpiece.  Immediately one of the professionals took a deep breath of oxygen, then took his own oxygen mouthpiece out, stuck it in the troubled diver’s mouth, and they both surfaced up the rope slowly and easily.  And suddenly I was free to enjoy the beauty of a whole other world.  I felt safe because I knew that other people in that world would know how to keep me from drowning if I needed help.

I’d forgotten that experience of fifty years ago until your question came up.  When I first started meeting with ten of my male friends, I was very afraid of what would happen to me if I went too deep inside myself and found something I’d have to share that might cause me to be rejected or drown in shame.  But as I saw these men, particularly in men’s groups, going over the side of their boats and sharing more deeply than I would go, I was amazed at their honest reporting of things they had been or done that were hurtful to the people they loved, or were immoral or unethical.   And there was no judgment or rejection, just understanding and identification.

And when over the weeks and months I saw the hope and joy they experienced as they reported actually making amends with family members,  business associates and friends, I got the courage to go deeper inside myself, behind my façade of adequacy.  And by doing so I experienced a new freedom and understood a little about what James is reported as saying, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healthy.”  (James 5:16, The Message).

When I do lose my breath and/or get deeper than I can handle, someone else usually hands me his oxygen connection—in the form of his own similar experience—so I can spiritually catch my breath and come safely back to the surface.  This has made it possible for me to look around and see the wonder and beauty of a world in which I’d almost been afraid to open my eyes.  And perhaps the best thing about these groups is that when I am away from them and feel the fear that I am going to drown, I can signal one of them by phone and he will reconnect me to our common source of oxygen and guide me back to the surface.

After years of resisting any group like this (that wasn’t being monitored by a psychological counselor or psychiatrist) I discovered that this kind of open, mutual sharing  in a safe atmosphere (like that of a Twelve-Step group) is the best practical way I’ve found to move into spiritual transformation from a fearful, compulsive and protective hidden life of inner isolation and denial to a life of learning how to give and receive love without the terrible fear of rejection or being shamed.

This way may not be right for you but in this blog, I am simply holding out my oxygen mouthpiece and saying welcome to the world of “breathing under water.”


Lord, thank you for your willingness to go over the side first and for your willingness to get back in the water with those of us who are often trying to look like fearless grown up divers—who are really scared little children inside when we find ourselves in such deep water that we can’t see the sky.  Thanks for offering us your oxygen tank if that’s what it takes. In Jesus’ name, amen.

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:3, RSV)

“Are you hurting?  Pray…  Make this your common practice.  Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so you can live together whole and healed.”  (James 5:16, The Message)

On protecting ourselves and our reputations:

“If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.  But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”  (Mt. 10:38, The Message)

Note: It occurred to me after I wrote this post that Richard Rohr has written a book with a similar title.  I have not read the book so any similarities are merely coincidence.

5 comments | Add One

  1. carole goettsche - 11/24/2010 at 10:16 am

    Well said! I am very glad I subscribed to your weekly devotional, Thank You!!!

  2. Keith Miller - 11/24/2010 at 10:28 am

    Carole – thank you for stopping by. I hope this is a good time for you and Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. holt evangeline - 11/24/2010 at 10:48 am

    Now I know I am never alone on any circumstances.Thank You

  4. Donna - 11/25/2010 at 5:49 am

    Thank you for my weekly devotion.I look foward to reading this every week. Happy Thanksgiving,we are very blessed.

  5. Sarah Wilcher - 11/26/2010 at 6:25 pm

    This is a great word picture of what happens in a recovery meeting. Community at its finest. This is the kind of community where love reigns and shame is put in its proper place. I appreciate your blogs so much.

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