How to Reach Out to Someone Who Is Struggling

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 4:59 pm

How to Reach Out to Someone Who Is Struggling

There is a story told and retold in the Middle East about how to help someone who’s drowning.

The story goes that a man had fallen into a river. He was not much of a swimmer and was in real danger of drowning. A crowd of concerned people wanted to rescue him. They were standing at the edge of the water, each of them urgently shouting out to him:

“Give me your hand, give me your hand!”

The man was battling the waves and ignored their urgent plea. He kept going under and was clearly struggling to take another breath.

A saintly man walked up to the scene. He too cared about the drowning man. But his approach was different. Calmly he walked up to the water, waded in up to his knees, glanced lovingly at the drowning man, and said:

“Take my hand.”

Much to everyone’s surprise, the drowning man reached out and grabbed the saint’s hand. The two came out of the dangerous water. The drowning man sat up at the edge of the water, breathing heavily, looking relieved, exhausted, and grateful.

The crowd turned towards the saint and asked in complete puzzlement: “How were you able to reach him when he didn’t heed our plea?” The saint calmly said:

“You all asked him for something, his hand. I offered him something, my hand. A drowning man is in no position to give you anything.”

Let us remember not to ask anything of someone who is drowning.

I saw a friend of mine over the weekend. It was the first time I had seen him since turbulent events in my own life, and he lovingly asked about that. I know him to be a loving father, a caring husband, one whose face glows when he speaks about his children. So I inquired about his family. He shared with me the difficult news that his own daughter had gone through some of the same challenges I had. We spent the rest of the time discussing how we can best be there for the people we love.

He shared, with a pained voice, how hard it was to see someone he loves so much hurting. It almost sounded like it would be less painful for him if he could be the one carrying the burden. We talked about the energy our loved ones spend to shield us, to protect us from their pain at the times when they are most in need of having someone take them by the hand and lead them to the shore.

We talked about this issue of how to be there for, and with, someone who was hurting, drowning. In other words, how to lend a hand, rather than asking them to give us their hand.

One thing we talked about stayed with me: When a person is breaking, broken, they are so exhausted, so drained. Asking them to come to us and share their brokenness is asking them to do more when all they can do to stay alive is to tread water.

And then there is shame. So many of us have felt a great shame when our lives, our marriages, our careers fall apart. To come to the people who can help us with our shame is… well, shameful. Ironically we end up spending more energy trying to shelter our family and loved ones from our brokenness. This is energy that we don’t have, energy that we should be using to tread water.

So if you are that saintly soul, if you want to reach out to someone who is struggling to stay above water, go to them.

But don’t ask them to give you their hand. Instead, offer them your hand. Don’t ask for their heart, offer them your heart. Offer them your ear, your love, your shoulder. Release your friends, your family, from the shame of their brokenness. Let them know that you love them through the brokenness, because of the brokenness, and God-willing, after the brokenness.

Free your loved ones of the energy they spend to hide their brokenness from you. Free them of the shame of coming to you as they are.

Let them spend that energy on surviving, on healing, on thriving. Let us love one another as we are, so that we may become all we are meant to be.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Bernie Wiscons Hoffman

    just this…….thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU so much for putting to words this very important message

    • Gabby

      Indeed, Omid’s words are wise. It is important only give to someone whose heart is broken while asking nothing of that person in return, particularly not explanations.

    • Lynda L True


  • Amor Fati

    As always, your words are a balm to my soul and spirit. As the sole caregiver to my beloved with dementia, I so appreciate the friends who show up on a regular basis, who are willing to walk this journey with us, not expecting anything from us in return. Their companionship is like a soft pillow to fall upon. They are truly angels who walk this earth.

    • Lynda L True

      Bless you Amor.

  • Joanne

    It has often amazed me how many people expect those is trouble to make them feel better about the crisis someone else is in. It’s a particularly cruel addition to trying to get out of the muck on your own.

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  • CrummyVerses

    A deep bow to you for sharing your woe with us. May you find peace in the turmoil. No matter what, may you find peace.

  • Judy Montel

    and we can be kind in our judgements of those those who don’t reach out. Who knows how many drowning souls wisely refrain from reaching out a hand that will only capsize us both.

  • Colleen Hayes

    I agree Norma. It’s actually the little things that mean the most. I posted this article once on facebook about 2 months ago and I’m going to post it again. One thing I am learning as me and my children continue to struggle, is that very often, those people who we most feel should be there for us, will not be. Not in any meaningful way at least. I believe commenter Joanne put it very succinctly when she said that she’s amazed by how people expect those who are in crisis make THEM feel better about their situation, rather being a place of solace and support for those who are in crisis. I’m experiencing exactly this in my own situation and have had to make the difficult decision that some relationships are just no longer serving me while I go through what I am going through and have decided to cut ties. At least for the time being. Never an easy decision, but sometimes it’s the best for all involved.

  • sactorox

    These gentle words are timely and troubling. My only child is in the throws of her bi-polar condition, struggling to stay in college and to work while drowning in depression. She fights all efforts to comfort, assist, and support and is herself emotionally abusive of her spouse, parents and friends (the few she has left). And so Omid Safi, I ask myself am I standing in the chaos reaching out or am I asking for her to stand up and stop drowning? Im not sure and my heart is sad for not knowing. I will carry this lesson into tomorrow and try to be more mindful. Thank you.

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  • Brennan Smith

    Thank you for this. This feels like permission to sit and feel and not run around updating everyone on my brokenness. Permission is so freeing, thank you. Thank you.