Not Waving But Drowning – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Twenty years ago Carl McCunn, a wildlife photographer, travelled into the remote heart of Alaska, intent on spending several months close to nature, hunting and fending for himself.  But he miscalculated.  He ran out of food, and the weather turned exceptionally bad.  He became weaker and weaker, and recorded every day in his diary his growing despair and crippling frostbite.

But friends, who were wondering how he was managing, asked State Troopers to fly over his camp to see if he was OK.  Carl ran out, full of excitement, when he heard the plane, and he wrote in his diary that he was so elated to see the plane that “I recall raising my hand, shoulder high, and shaking my fist – it was like a little cheer.”  That was a big mistake – for that was the signal for “All OK – do not wait” – and the plane circled around, the pilot waved and flew off, thinking all was well. Carl had given the wrong signal.  Three months later he was dead.

There is something haunting in this story.  For me, it is a metaphor of life lived in isolation, where your signal of distress is either not noticed or misunderstood.  A friend of mine who is a doctor said that isolation is probably the most common disease in America today.  So many family units are fractured and more people live alone today than ever before in American history.  The lack of interpersonal relationships causes severe loneliness to millions.  Please look at me.  Talk to me.

During the year of renovations I lived with some of my brothers in a rented house just on the edge of Somerville.  Over the road was a rather old fashioned, run down supermarket.  It didn’t look promising.  But shopping there was one of the nicest experiences we had during that year.  It wasn’t state of the art, but the staff talked to you.  I don’t like cooking very much, so I used to go in there with my shopping list and ask the men at the meat counter and the vegetable counter for their advice.  Eventually, every time I went in, they’d say hello – “What are you cooking tonight?”  And those on the cash register would chat with each other about boyfriends and school, and draw you into the conversations.  It was a lot of fun, and I really miss going there now.  Old fashioned it was, but people noticed you and looked at you and smiled.

My heart sinks when I see state of the art stores, where you can pay for your purchases automatically and get told what to do by a recorded voice.  There’s nothing worse than a recorded voice saying “Have a nice day!”  It doesn’t look at you.  It doesn’t smile.  It doesn’t connect.

Gradually, day-by-day, in our brave new world, machines and technology offer us virtual connection, virtual communication, but there is no substitute for looking at another person in their eyes.  Only connect with them, and you notice, you really begin to see that person.

Every day, it seems, there are fewer opportunities for the little chats and smiles which added together form a powerful glue bonding communities together, linking people together into livable units – opportunities to see the other, and to notice, to pick up the signals that we long to give to others.  Look at me, notice me.

Jesus was walking one day through a great crowd of people.  And right in the middle of the crowd was a little man called Zacchaeus – who was a tax collector.  Now I am not very tall myself, and I know how he must have felt.  I have often been in a crowd, and had to jump up and down for a quick glance over the tops of people’s heads.  But not only was Zacchaeus little in stature, he was also loathed by others because he was a tax collector.  Socially ostracized, he must have felt isolated and lonely – and probably resentful and angry.

But he was eager to see Jesus, so, small as he was, he climbed a sycamore tree so as to see Jesus as he passed by.  And then this extraordinary thing happened.  Amidst the huge crowd, Jesus suddenly stopped and looked up.  He looked at Zacchaeus.  He looked at him.  That is what Jesus did time and time again.  He looked deeply and lovingly at individuals.  Numbers, statistics, did not interest him – but each precious and unique child of God did.  Jesus looked deeply at Zaccheaus, and he picked up the signal.  He saw the isolation, the pain, the profound need for healing and salvation.  And Jesus said, “Come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

Jesus looked at him, loved him, and came to his home.  It was to be a transforming encounter.  Jesus looked at him and saw a beautiful, beloved child of God, not a greedy, dishonest outcast.  And Zacchaeus changed under that loving gaze.  He changed and started to become the beautiful person whom God made him to be.  “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”(Lk 19:10)

When I was ordained priest, I remember the Bishop speaking these words from the English Prayer Book: “Priests are called to search for God’s children lost in the wilderness of this world.”  Many people are lost: many lead lives of isolation and loneliness – and long for someone to look at them, and notice them.  But it is not just people who are on their own who can feel isolated.  It can happen in a marriage, in a family, in a community.  You can become so familiar with another person’s presence that you stop really noticing.  When that person is sad, or in distress, when they send out signals, often we simply don’t notice.  (I had no idea you were feeling like that.)

There is a poem by Stevie Smith which I used to use when I was a teacher in a high school in England.  Always, among the class of 15/16 year olds there would be some who would say, “That’s how I feel.”  The poem is called “Not Waving but Drowning.”

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead.
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

I wonder if there is someone in your life who is not waving but drowning?  Perhaps someone you think you know really well – or someone at home or at work, who you hardly ever notice, because they are familiar.  Always there – always the same.  Perhaps someone close to you who longs for you to really look at them and pick up the distress signals.  Or maybe you yourself long to be looked at, noticed, acknowledged, listened to.  Why don’t you notice?

Maybe in a time of prayer, you could read the story of Zacchaeus again.  Imagine yourself into the scene – imagine the crowds, the noise, the excitement.  Then imagine you are Zacchaeus, longing to see Jesus.  Imagine climbing up that sycamore tree.  And then, as Jesus comes by, he looks up, and he looks at you.  He speaks your name.  Imagine what you would say to him – and what he says to you.  Perhaps you need to hear again the Good News – that Jesus has noticed you, and understands and loves you.  He has picked up the signals of your need and has come close to you.

Nowhere does Jesus come closer to us than in Holy Communion.  As you come up to receive him in this sacrament, put out your hands as a signal of your need and your faith.  It is a signal which the Lord recognizes and honors.  As you eat his body and drink his blood, allow him to heal and transform you, as he did with Zacchaeus.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  He came to seek and to save me.


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  1. Muriel Akam on October 3, 2015 at 12:55

    What a wonderful sermon. and a great reminder for me (for us all) to really look at people and connect with them and to never . take for granted that family and friends are ok. A phone call, a letter , a card , an email even to check on how things are going and to learn to read /se e behind f the ‘ i;m alright’ facade.

  2. Jeff Lowry on October 3, 2015 at 09:24

    Dear Br. Geoffrey,

    Thank you and the brothers for your online ministries! They do reach people. Thank you as well for this sermon. A sad, but all too true, comment on our society today.

    I am not to the point of drowning yet but it is something I need to watch out for in my situation and be vigilant about in others. I moved four states away 15 years ago to be married. We had what many would call a wonderful marriage for 13 years. I am an ambivert and my now x is a wonderful woman who is very much an introvert. She really did not like the idea of couples friends. I made what I would call close acquaintances. They would help if you needed it and asked but I probably would not be likely to share my innermost thoughts with them. The church I attend is 50 miles away. I currently care for my elderly mother. I sometimes wonder what will happen after it is her time to join the great throng.
    In Christ,

  3. Leslie on October 3, 2015 at 07:48

    If we could rewind the life of the young man who wrought deadly violence at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, would we find a time in which he was not waving, but drowning?

  4. Jack Ellis on October 30, 2014 at 10:24

    Androids never dream
    We are not machines

  5. Christina on October 30, 2014 at 09:13

    During a recent visit to one of my children, she told me what it had been like for her throughout her childhood and an unhappy marriage. When I returned home, I wrote a piece entitled, How Little We Know. I was devastated to hear how much she had suffered and I – and the others in our family – had no idea. We did not see her waving throughout her childhood, and we all lived so far away from one another that we did not see her waving throughout her marriage. // When we hear that someone has committed suicide, friends and neighbours often comment that they are shocked, that they never knew that the person next door, their friend, was other than the happy-go-lucky sufferer.
    How Little we Know – we can only open our eyes and ears and hope that we pick up the signals – the hand waving rather than in discovering the drowned one. Christina

    • Christina on October 3, 2015 at 11:09

      Me again. I am a city dweller. I love the possibility to visit stores, not always to buy something but to greet the owner or sales helper. Then too, there is the market square and vendors, and I know some of them too. //The other experience is my apartment building. Most older people have come to know one another, but it is difficult to get the younger folks to connect. Their first reaction upon getting into the elevator is to bring out their cell phone (or whatever electronic gizmo they have) and hide behind it. I try to get beyond that and say, ‘Hi.’ to them.// Then there are the street folks: again, ‘Hi. How are you today?’ I don’t give them money, but greet them and they know me too. // I don’t write this to pat myself on the back. Over time, it has just become an every day opportunity. Thanks be to God.

  6. Pat on August 24, 2014 at 23:11

    Something about this touched me in a very profound way. What a sad sad story. I struggle deeply for those who are not noticed and recognize those times in my own life when I have been drowning and others thought I was waving. And recognize those times when others noticed I was drowning and saw me. Thank you for this meditation it promoted notes to those who have noticed

  7. Ruth West on August 24, 2014 at 13:42

    This is a powerful sermon. I will not forget it. The poem “Not Waving but Drowning” haunts me, as I know I have ignored that wave, not believing it is so serious as drowning. May God help me to see; to look the person in the eye, as Jesus dfid with Zacchaeus. Thank you, Brother in Christ.

  8. Amey upton on August 24, 2014 at 11:53

    Well said. Just noticing another can save a life.

  9. Ron Stevenson on August 24, 2014 at 08:49

    “there is no substitute for looking at another person in their eyes. Only connect with them, and you notice, you really begin to see that person.” – Some years ago I was on a crowded subway car in Toronto. A rather disheveled middle aged woman was near me. She was talking aloud to no pone in particular, mostly obscenities, obviously disturbed. When I made eye contact with her and smiled, she stopped ranting and her face turned into a very beautiful smile.

  10. Faith Turner on August 24, 2014 at 08:33

    I remember a poem I wrote when I was at the worst point
    of my life. I wrote it to a priest By frozen woods I l lay alone and wounded……No one stopped to see…..My heart was breaking in me.Outside was storm. And then you stopped to see my tears were warm.. .

  11. Anders on February 10, 2014 at 13:45

    Thank you. Your words remind me of when I was a child in the 70s and there was a bumper sticker that stated “I found it”. The idea is that people would be asked “Found what?“ and they could evangelize. Besides gagging in the background over the thought, I now feel inspired to make my own bumper sticker that says “I lost it”. Lost what? My certainties, adopted values and false sense of comfort and security. It is by embracing our woundedness and lostness that we find our strength, courage and sense of God out there—in nature and the grocery store line, and we see others for who they also are, drowning and basking alike in their own creative ways. And it is good.

  12. Polly Chatfield on February 10, 2014 at 09:01

    Thank you, Geoffrey, for those words, that nudge to embrace opportunities to look into the eyes of anxiety and loneliness, and recognize it and care about it.

  13. Br. Ron Jyleen on February 10, 2014 at 08:59

    I have lived and served in several large cities. As a solitary monk, it can be difficult in that environment to connect with the masses around me. I was able to establish close relationships with small groups in my church and in the neighborhoods that I lived in. This became more difficult as the city grew into a large metroplex. Eight years ago, I made the decision to move to a more rural area. I ended up in Pagosa Springs, Colorado which has a population of around 12,000 people in the entire county. From the very beginning I felt the openness of the people in the community. I cannot go anywhere in the community without being among friends or friendly strangers. This is also true within the parish that I serve. Our parish has a jubilee ministry serving those in need in the community. We have a food box ministry, provide hot meals through a loves & fishes program through in cooperation with three other churches in the town and provide free used clothing to those in need and raise money for organizations that provide services to the community. In conclusion, when someone raises their hand in a wave, we are ready to respond whether they just want to share their friendship, or they are in trouble and need our support. God is truly present in Pagosa Springs.

  14. DOREEN BIRDSELL on February 27, 2012 at 06:16

    Thank you for this very informative and thought provoking post. I had no idea that we are at a record breaking number of those living in isolation. I am encouraged to take even more seriously those chance encounters with another human being – or even a pet – that usually leads to a human soul 😉 – I see God, often through the eyes of another and know I am not alone. In fellowship I grow strong. Alone I am weak for there is no one with whom to speak. Oh God may I be heard to share Your holy word.

  15. A Adams on November 18, 2011 at 14:46

    A very thought provoking sermon. I am ashamed to admit I probably did not notice when someone was not waving but drowning. I felt very unsettled, and seek God’s forgiveness for the times I did not notice.

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