Tarzan and Quicksand

As a kid I loved the old Tarzan movies. A standard feature was someone thrashing around in quicksand. Sometimes this was a bad guy with a gun who had been chasing Tarzan: a scene which ended with his hat floating on the mire. Occasionally, however, it was someone deserving rescue. Tarzan would extend a long stick or throw out a vine and pull the person to solid ground. He never jumped in.

I suppose I should worry that many of my important life lessons come from old black and white television shows. But this lesson about quicksand is important—especially for young people who are fiercely loyal to their friends. It is also important for people who by nature are rescuers. Tarzan provides us with a model for how to rescue others without joining them in the quicksand.

One of the things I have greatly admired (occasionally lamented) about my sons is their loyalty to their friends. From what I have seen this is one of the virtues of their generation. My sons have taught me some good lessons on how to be a friend. And some of them really have a heart to rescue the abandoned and rejected. While blessing this loyalty, I have often encouraged them to stay out of the quicksand in which some of their friends are sinking.

Avoiding the quicksand is not easy. First, it is not easy to identify. In the movies the trail leads right into the bog which looks just like solid ground. Sometimes the quicksand was graced with beautiful water lilies. The smiling faces of those sinking in sin may not reveal the depression and shame sucking them under. Appearances are deceptive so rescuers must carefully stomp their way to the edge of the solid ground.

Unlike the movies, in real life those sinking in the quicksand are not always crying out to be rescued. The alcoholic or addict may be doing the backstroke in the quicksand and inviting others for a swim. And it would be judgmental to point out to a friend that they are sinking. In the spirit of tolerance, some say we should acknowledge that one person’s rock is another person’s quicksand. These voices of relativism can make us spectators as we watch our friends disappear into the muck. Of course, voices at the other end of the spectrum insist we should let these folks get out of quicksand on their own: not realizing that urging them to thrash around more only makes them sink faster.

What is most difficult is to resist the temptation to rush into the quicksand. The refusal to join them in their depression, anger, addiction, or irresponsibility can feel like betrayal. Sometimes those who are sinking will feel abandoned by the person who embraces hope instead of despair, does their homework instead of smoking weed, saves their money instead of buying the latest game, or lives for God instead of passing pleasures. Rescuers who themselves have been abandoned are especially vulnerable to the accusation that they are betraying their friends if they don’t join them in the quicksand. Misery does enjoy company, but keeping the sinking company isn’t real love.

We should admit that there is a kind of tragic comradeship among those who are sinking. This brotherhood of quicksand can generate some great songs and poetry. The water lilies on the quicksand are beautiful at eye level. But this seductive aesthetic of the tragic artist hides the stench of death and mud.

It stretches us to rescue the sinking. Tarzan often grabbed a tree with one arm and with other extended a long branch: all the while keeping his feet on solid ground. We too must get our feet on solid ground before rescuing others. It easier to lift those out of poverty when we aren’t in it. It is easier to lift those out of despair when we have hope. When our hand is held by God, we can safely extend a hand to others.

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About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.

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